Whether it’s through an ad that mysteriously made its way to your inbox, or through a months-long search through Instagram specialty stores for a specific product, the past two years have seen many Filipinos becoming accustomed to the rote, deceptively innocuous motions of online shopping via their smartphones.
According to the logistics solutions provider Janio, we’ve become more meticulous when it comes to making purchase decisions — nowadays, consumers don’t just take recommendations from anyone. The trade-off for this is that we spend even more time on social media, which, among other things, draws us even more to sales and promotions.
A study by the German database company Statista reports that the year 2020 marked an increase of over 25% in online shopping worldwide, with most of the cyber week sales made from a smartphone. Both findings are what many of us would expect as both products and catalysts of an ongoing decades-long campaign for surveillance capitalism, this time fast-tracked by a pandemic.
That we have migrated to smartphones as the main site for economic activity has turned us into even more vulnerable agents, our need to connect and carry out basic tasks endlessly monetized. Privacy is not private — human behavior is fodder for commerce, and what we unknowingly give away online only keeps us online. Of course we know all this already, but the fact that smartphones evolve faster than we can understand our own wants and needs should compel us to try to preserve the freedom we might have. How well we do that during the holiday season may boil down to our understanding of holiday consumption trends (and consumer behavior trends in general) and the ways in which brands respond to these trends.
The rise of the super-app
The shift to smartphones as the main site for online transactions mostly means that people are shopping via messaging apps — a phenomenon closely tied to the rise of so-called super apps. Noa Bar-Shay, Senior Partnerships Account Director for Viber, explains that people no longer tend to use different apps for different needs: “Yes, we are all on our smartphones. But did you know that on average, app users spend 77% of their time on their top three apps and almost half of their time in one single app? Nowadays, people seek one gateway to many options in one place.”
The convenience and seamlessness a single gateway affords consumers is undeniable, but that cohesion also means that these apps are able to collect more behavioral data which they can then use to build even more products and services. Consider what that might mean for existing super-apps like Facebook and Grab, and perhaps most recently, Instagram. A saturated digital ecosystem might, at best, mean more choices, but it can also be a site for scams.
Though most of these apps screen sellers, it’s not exactly a foolproof process. When conducting transactions via these apps, customers should do their own screening of sellers. Checking for any red flags can involve a quick search of the brand or product name, checking the quality of photos (grainy photos are a bad sign) and information on their bio, and reading customer reviews (be on the lookout for paid reviews though). If the seller has a website, verify if it’s secure by looking at the URL: if there’s an “S” after HTTP, that means the connection is encrypted and sensitive information — such as credit card numbers and passwords —can’t easily be stolen by hackers.
Our desire for more personalized shopping experiences grew at the onset of the pandemic, when many of us migrated to online shopping. “Before the pandemic, customers were used to receiving personalized services in traditional stores. Now they want to have the same user experience online as they used to have offline. And messaging apps can easily help with this,” says Bar-Shay. Again, the preference for single gateways is at play here: the appeal lies in the fact that conducting transactions via messaging apps is “no different from messaging a friend.”
The terms “messenger marketing” and “conversational commerce” aren’t exactly new. Chatbots running on messaging apps (or via SMS) have been utilized by many brands in the past five years or so, but its current performance and projected growth indicate that they will be some of the key customer service tech trends in the coming years. “One estimate puts messaging apps’ current reach at 1.7 billion people, set to grow to 2.7 billion by 2027,” says Bar-Shay. Messaging apps like Viber are looking to incorporate different services into their platform: sending customers up-to-date information about their courier packages, and providing food delivery services and even financial education, among others.
When conducting transactions via these apps, customers should do their own screening of sellers. Checking for any red flags can involve a quick search of the brand or product name, checking the quality of photos (grainy photos are a bad sign) and information on their bio, and reading customer reviews (be on the lookout for paid reviews though).
So how can customers ensure safe and pleasant transactions with these e-commerce chatbots? There’s no clear-cut answer, but taking into account a basic question might be a good start: how secure is the messaging app itself? A messaging app that is end-to-end encrypted (meaning, the platform’s server is not reading your conversations) is ideal.
And if you’re transacting with actual humans via these apps, a thorough screening of the seller is a good idea. Whatever the case though, it’s always best to be cautious of the information you share through these apps. A basic safety checklist that could be helpful includes: reading return policies, privacy policies, keeping documentation of your orders, knowing shipping schedules, avoiding cash on delivery as much as possible, and securing your accounts with strong passwords.
Personalized services and real-time support
“Statistics on user preferences reveal that people want to receive personalized services and real-time support from brands which can be easily done via messaging apps. For example, four in 10 holiday shoppers are looking for retailers to remember personal details, like past sizes and items they’ve purchased,” says Bar-Shay.
What might the seeming disconnect between the need for personalization and the limits of technology mean in this holiday season’s shopping spree? Deloitte’s 2018 Holiday Survey reports that even before lockdown restrictions put a toll on businesses, most shoppers (with the exception of seniors) favor online channels over physical stores. And this will likely be the case this holiday season, except with a greater desire for personalized service and seamless shopping experiences. “Brands shouldn’t leave out support from real agents — 86% of users expect chatbots to always be able to transfer to a live agent. This is even more important during the holiday season, when customers need gift-finding assistance from retail consultants online,” adds Bar-Shay.
With the flux of online shoppers looking to avail the benefits of shopping (which include convenience, delivery services, easily compare prices, wide variety of choices, etc.) also comes this tacit need for some kind of human touch in these transactions. This may explain why so many people are turning to smaller online brands for their Christmas shopping, the “gift-giving assistance” we might need implicit in the familiarity (and convenience) of an IG store recommended by a friend. Simply taking recommendations from someone you trust, coupled with a resolve to follow basic online security rules, can set you up for a mostly harmless shopping experience this Christmas.