The resurrection of commerce is happening all around us.

Cutting edge digitally native brands are experimenting with voice commerce, partnering with luxury Las Vegas hotels on exclusive pop-ups, and testing augmented reality-enabled online-to-offline (O2O) experiences. With headless commerce and progressive web applications (PWA), the world is becoming a storefront as brands enable commerce via smart mirrors, video games, and live streams.

Second and third tier shopping malls are being reborn as experiential destinations with theme parks, ski hills, and water slides. Legacy manufacturers and CPG companies are reinventing themselves by selling direct-to-consumer (DTC) to accelerate growth.

Yes, an estimated 12,000 retail locations were expected to close last year, But don’t let the headlines skew your perspective—what dies in the mall is being reborn online, and what was born online is increasingly crossing over to the physical world.


“I highly recommend this company for all and any of your design needs. I am very happy with the new redesigned and restructured website they built for my moving company!”

Commerce is being raised from the dead online, offline, and everywhere in between. The future is bright, and is being shaped by the following trends in 2020 and beyond:

  1. Ecommerce takes share but growth cools
  2. Direct to consumer and private-label selling accelerates
  3. PWAs and AMPs drive mobile commerce
  4. Global ecommerce booms outside the U.S.
  5. Automation powers productivity
  6. Sustainable ecommerce goes mainstream
  7. Digitally native brands go offline
  8. Fulfillment expectations and costs soar
  9. Voice recognition changes the path to purchase
  10. Marketers target new channels and devices

1. Ecommerce takes share but growth cools

Though the line between physical and digital commerce is blurring, the difference in growth trajectories between retail and ecommerce is still stark (though not as stark as it once was.)

Overall, the global retail market was expected to top $25 trillion USD in 2019. However, growth has slowed considerably versus the prior five years and is not expected to pick up through 2023:

Total retail sales worldwide, 2017-2023

On the other hand, worldwide ecommerce sales topped $3.5 trillion USD, an increase of approximately 18% from the year before. Ecommerce is expected to nearly double by 2023 to more than $6.5 billion.

Some perspective is in order though. While ecommerce is growing much faster than retail, it’s still a relatively small piece of the pie. In 2019, ecommerce share of total global retail sales was 14.1% and analysts only expect it to increase 2% a year through 2023:

Ecommerce share of total global retail sales from 2015 to 2023

Much of ecommerce growth is attributable to Amazon, which is growing at above-market rates and was expected to account for 37.7% of online U.S. sales in 2019. While in-store sales still account for nearly 90% of total retail sales, the total market share of online U.S. retail sales is now higher than general merchandise sales for the first time ever.

2. Direct to consumer and private-label selling accelerates

With 16.1% of all retail sales expected to happen online in 2020, manufacturers and traditional brands are increasingly bypassing retail partners and selling DTC. In fact, it’s ecommerce growth that is helping legacy manufacturers offset stagnant in-store sales growth.

Selling direct yields three key benefits:


  • You own the customer relationship


With a direct customer relationship brands no longer have to rely on retail partners to protect and promote your brand. Establishing a direct relationship with the end consumer also lets you continue to give support after the sale.


  • Collect and use customer data


Selling direct lets you collect first-party data that you can use to personalize the customer experience, and ultimately monetize that relationship.


  • Offer personalized products


Selling direct positions brands to offer experiences that can’t be had in traditional retail stores. DTC brands are increasingly allowing shoppers to design custom packaging, mix and match custom assortments, or participate in contests while becoming brand evangelists.

A key driver of the DTC trend is the rise of private-label brands.

Private label brands now account for approximately 20% of the consumables market. Driving much of this market share growth are the retail partners on which legacy manufacturers have historically relied on for distribution. They’re increasingly offering their own brands that compete against those produced by legacy manufacturers. Selling direct is a response to increased competition from retail partners offering their own DTC private-label brands.

Private-label products are the new challenger brands since consumers are willing to abandon brand loyalty for what they perceive as better value. Importantly, private-label brands are taking share in both online and in brick-and-mortar stores. Nearly one-third of Costco’s sales are private-label, as are 19% of Walmart’s.

Importantly, consumers aren’t just turning to private-label brands to save money—they’re turning to premium private-label brands. Premium private-label products, or those that are perceived as higher quality than branded products that sell at higher price points, now account for 7.2% dollar share of US private-label products, up from 5.9% three years ago:

Private label dollar share by price tier

3. PWAs and AMPs drive mobile commerce

By 2021, analysts estimate 53.9% of all ecommerce sales will happen on mobile devices. Worldwide, mobile commerce is expected to even more prevalent:

mobile retail commerce sales as percentage of retail ecommerce sales worldwide

But just because your ecommerce platform theme offers a responsive site doesn’t mean you’re providing a great mobile experience. Mobile conversion rates are less than half those of desktop. Research indicates 53% of consumers will abandon a site that takes longer than three seconds to load. Research suggests mobile bounce rates are 10–20% higher than desktop.

To offer an optimal mobile experience across, some brands opt for a progressive web application (PWA), which can live on a user’s home screen and are supposed to load instantly regardless of whether the user is online. PWAs may be part of a headless commerce strategy that lets teams work on the front- and back-end systems simultaneously to further improve mobile performance.

Rothy’s, which sells women’s shoes made with recycled plastics, relaunched its mobile site as a progressive web app (PWA):

“Like many other brands, we see the majority of our traffic from mobile devices—a trend that spiked during the holiday season as consumers were away from their desktops,” says Gigi Teutli-Vadheim, Rothy’s Site Experience Manager. “In terms of the customer experience, we’re shifting our focus to be mobile-first and prioritizing speed to ensure users are satisfied.”

One step further combining a PWA with an accelerated mobile page (AMP), which are mobile-first stripped down HTML copies of web pages that load instantly. AMPs are the foundation of Google’s mobile-first index, which prioritizes mobile optimization in search results. The combination can yield better search results, more top-of-funnel traffic, and improved conversion rates onsite.

4. Global ecommerce booms outside the U.S.

Global ecommerce sales are expected to top $4.2 trillion USD in 2020 and reach more than $6.5 trillion by 2023. More than 2.1 billion shoppers are expected to purchase goods and services online by 2021. Increasingly, these online shoppers live outside the U.S.

By the end of 2020, 1.4 billion people are expected to join the world’s middle class, and most of them (approximately 85%) will be in the Asia Pacific region (APAC). Ecommerce as a whole has already shifted away from the West and will continue to do so even as China’s previously hot consumer economy cools a bit.

In APAC, ecommerce grew 25% last year, topping $2.27 trillion USD:

Retail ecommerce sales growth worldwide, by region

While more than half of the fastest-growing ecommerce countries are from the Asia-Pacific region, Latin America also boasts of accelerated ecommerce growth, including the world’s fastest grower, Mexico:

Top 10 countries, ranked by retail ecommerce sales growth

But growth rates only tell part of the story—the king of global ecommerce is China. With an estimated $1.9 trillion in ecommerce sales in 2019, online sales in China are three times that of the U.S. In fact, China’s share of the global ecommerce market is 54.7% or nearly twice that of the next five countries combined:

Top 10 countries, ranked by retail ecommerce sales

Localization will be increasingly important when expanding internationally. A study by the Localization Industry Standards Association (LISA) found that for every $1 spent on localization, the return on investment (ROI) is $25. Offering customers local payment methods, local currencies, and translating content into local languages is improving the chances of cross-border success.

For example, 100% Pure sells cruelty-free products directly to Chinese customers through Tmall Global and delivers them via a third-party logistics partner. One reason the company quadrupled sales year-over-year, is its decision to localize.

Part of its strategy lay in Juhuasuan, a group-buying feature within Tmall for flash sales that also leverages live streams with Chinese influencers. “You don’t want to market in China the way you market in the U.S., so I needed local people to help,” says co-founder, Ric Kostick. “You have to do it the local way.”

5. Automation powers productivity

Businesses will increasingly put operations on autopilot in the coming year. Automation will be particularly beneficial to brands expanding internationally which requires operating multiple stores and larger inventory and fulfillment networks. On average, international businesses ship to 31 countries, and brands are increasingly using ecommerce automation to scale faster and more efficiently.

Ecommerce automation

Ecommerce automation eliminates many of the manual, repetitive, and time-consuming tasks that reduce productivity.

Simplifying cross-border commerce, reducing the risk of human error in managing multiple stores, and offering a best-in-class shopping experience are three ways ecommerce automation is powering productivity:

  • Pre-load storefront changes for major events
  • Rollback those changes automatically
  • Automate your next flash sale or product drop
  • List new products on multiple channels
  • Tag and segment customers for retention
  • Streamline tracking and reporting
  • Identify and cancel high-risk orders
  • Schedule inventory alerts for reordering and marketing
  • Standardize merchandising for discoverability
  • Integrate third-party apps to trigger workflows outside your ecommerce ecosystem like email win-back sequences

Importantly, ecommerce automation is also protecting brands from a rising threat: fraud. Instead of manually cross-checking orders with shopper purchase histories to determine if individual orders are fraudulent, brands are relying on automated fraud protection natively embedded in their ecommerce platform. Automation can prevent high-risk orders from being fulfilled and prevent costly chargebacks.

Warehouse robotics

Brands operating their own warehouse will increasingly consider robotics to cut costs and become more efficient. Worldwide, there are now more than 3,200 robot-enabled fulfillment centers.

Worldwide spending on robotic process automation (RPA) is expected to top $3 billion by 2022. While cost remains a top barrier to implementing RPA, 48% of the businesses that use new technologies like automation expect it to help reduce their workforce.

Artificial intelligence

Level 5 automation, or automation that manages itself with no humans involved, will likely require the highest level of machine learning to produce artificial intelligence that can replace human intelligence. Businesses expect to spend big on AI-powered automation. Worldwide AI and process automation expenditures are expected to top $15.4 billion by 2021:

total automation and artificial intelligence operations expenditure worldwide

6. Sustainable ecommerce goes mainstream

Consumers increasingly want brands to lead with their values. But aligning your brand with a social cause is no longer enough. Consumers increasingly want companies to act as good global citizens by using green manufacturing practices, eco-friendly supply chains, and reduced waste packaging.

Eco-friendly supply chains

Enterprises are turning to sophisticated technology stacks to cut waste and become more efficient. Smart order routing combined with multi-location inventory, and automated rule-based order routing can match orders with stock in warehouses that are closest to the customer. Automatically routing orders in this manner saves time, expedites fulfillment, and reduces shipping costs.

Likewise, consumer demand to know a product’s entire lifecycle also requires the ethical sourcing of sustainable commodities and components. This includes minimizing the impact on the environment as well as treating workers humanely.

Big box retailers are asking brands to set goals and measure progress toward reducing annual corporate greenhouse gas emissions. To track this, and other links in the supply chain, Walmart has created a sustainability index for its suppliers. The assessment checks each of their supplier’s commitment to:

  • Create zero waste
  • Use 100% renewable energy
  • Sell sustainable products

Sustainable manufacturing

Energy-efficient and resource-saving manufacturing is just the start. In the future, customer satisfaction is likely to hinge not just on price and quality but how brands manufacture their goods.

To realize the environmental benefits of sustainable manufacturing distributed manufacturing systems (DMS) are being considered. These are decentralized networks of adaptable and flexible mini-factories. Putting manufacturing closer to the end consumer reduces emissions by cutting transportation requirements. It can also stimulate regional economies that benefit from jobs produced. Decentralizing the manufacturing process can also improve flexibility and position brands to reconfigure faster if consumer taste or behavior shifts.

Zero Waste Packaging

Zero waste packaging is a packaging system where all materials are used, reused, or recycled so there’s no waste product. Driven by consumer demand, it requires that brands do more than simply use sustainable packaging supplies. Besides eliminating waste, the effort requires that all packaging resources be recovered and none burned or buried.

Minimalist packaging, reduced package sizes, and redesigned shipping cases are also shaping the future of ecommerce. To reduce packaging waste and its fulfillment costs, Amazon is now charging fees to sellers that don’t comply with its packaging guidelines. Oversized or unnecessary packaging results in a $1.99 charge. The requirements include replacing boxes with flexible mailers, using fully recyclable mailers, and better matching products with appropriate sized boxes.

It all sounds costly but could prove lucrative. Research indicates consumers are willing to pay a premium for goods produced in socially compliant ways:

How much more are U.S. internet users willing to paying for socially compliant products?

7. Digitally native brands go offline

Offering the consumer an experience that can’t be had online will drive digital brands to increasingly experiment with offline experiences. While it may not be a brick-and-mortar renaissance, it does follow in the vein of Amazon Go’s retail outlets in which there are no checkouts.