Shopify COO Harley Finkelstein’s five retail trends to watch in 2018


A few weeks ago, my wife pulled me into a big name department store to look for an engagement gift for a friend. I rarely set foot in department stores anymore and I thought the experience might be nostalgic, even fun. Within seconds I was full of regret. Trying to navigate floors and floors of haphazardly organized, uncurated stock in search of a specific product wasn’t just frustrating, it was defeating—second only to the difficulty in trying to flag down an actual salesperson to help us out.

There’s no excuse for a shopping experience like that any longer. We all now have supercomputers in our pockets. We’ve come to expect a limitless catalogue of products, immediate insight into functionality and user reviews, comparisons with related products and, in some cases, same-day delivery. Responding to these expectations, progressive retailers—online and offline—are finding increasingly creative ways to raise the bar and put an end to the one-size-fits-all approach to retail. Just putting stuff on shelves no longer cuts it.

Here are 5 trends poised to transform shopping for the better in 2018.

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1. Experiential shopping, minus the gimmicks

From espresso bars in salons to popup lemonade stands in stores, experiential shopping was all the rage 2017—almost to the point where it became a gimmick. It’s not enough anymore to add superfluous bells and whistles (or the ubiquitous DJ) in a bid to appear on trend. Retailers that are winning in the realm of experiential shopping are doing their homework to ensure the experiences offer real value to their core clientele.

Take London’s House of Vans, which made a concrete commitment to counterculture when it opened a custom BMX and skate park in the bottom of its flagship store. This wasn’t an afterthought: it was a dedicated effort to give customers a place to do what they love. This same upleveling of experience is happening digitally. Victoria’s Secret’s millennial-targeted PINK Nation app is a social media network that offers games, prizes and of course, discounts and promotions. But what sets it apart are on-campus events that move the socializing offline and create opportunities at colleges and universities for members to forge real-world connections. The key here is that these experiences are incredibly authentic—not cheap marketing tactics. They add meaning and value for the customer.

2. Next level personalization

Of course, one of the surest ways to create meaning for your customers is to craft a product or service expressly for them. Better, bigger data, streamlined digital interfaces and on-demand manufacturing mean that bespoke customization is the new retail frontier. As a black t-shirt aficionado, I have to single out Son of a Tailor, which jumped on my radar this year by beating traditional retail at its own game. All I have to do is input my chest measurement onto their site and I get a perfectly tailored, made-for-me shirt delivered right to my door, complete with monogrammed initials and a fit that’s far superior to anything I’d find off the rack.

But individual innovation isn’t limited to online retailers. I’m a long and loyal customer at Harry Rosen, despite rarely setting foot in one of their stores. I don’t have to. Every year during the retail “Super Bowl Season”—that frantic period between Black Friday and Christmas—I get a visit from one of their sales associates with all the clothes I need. By leveraging rich customer data, plus the human touch that comes with brick-and-mortar, traditional retailers are rising to the occasion in the new shopping landscape.  

3. AR that’s actually useful (and AI that’s not annoying)

Long limited to tech fantasies, augmented reality and artificial intelligence have finally crossed the chasm into being…well, useful. AR integrations in apps from stores like Magnolia and Ikea have solved a major problem with online shopping: they let you see products in your space before you buy. Just point your phone at your living room and see how that new couch or coffee table fits in. Similarly, Gap’s DressingRoom app is bringing the AR magic into the apparel space by enabling users to see garments on a mannequin of their selected size. And it won’t stop there. A future is in sight where you’ll be able to point your phone in the mirror and see how those same threads will look on your body.

Meanwhile, chatbots have finally found their place. Brands are figuring out the best way to use artificial intelligence isn’t to replace humans, but to help them. Relegating digital agents to the grunt work, like sending out tracking numbers and shipping updates, is freeing up human capital for complex tasks, like handling customer concerns, dealing with special requests or building business strategies. Finally, human and machine are working in harmony to create a better experience for the customer.

4. Mobile goes mainstream

The data says it all: mobile checkouts are on the rise. Almost 65% of Black Friday/Cyber Monday sales occurred on mobile across Shopify platforms in 2017. It’s a trend that will only continue with mobile shopping on pace to eclipse desktop or tablet in the not-too-distant future. Outside of our platform, nearly 35% of e-commerce purchases were made on mobile in 2017, a rate that’s predicted to jump to nearly 40% over the year ahead.

Fuelling this are more mobile-friendly sites, better phones and reduced barriers to checkout thanks to integrated payment systems through iPhone and Android. Facial recognition is another game changer. With the new iPhone X, I simply look at my phone and my purchase is on its way; soon, I won’t even have to do that. Voice commerce is poised to revolutionize online shopping with Siri, Alexa and Google Now standing at the ready to make purchases with simple verbal commands. For retailers looking to keep up, embracing this new tech and making e-comm on mobile frictionless should be priority number one.

5. Social shopping (finally) finds its niche

Social media today is a lot like the town square of yore—the place where everyone gets together to socialize and window shop. But, until recently, actually purchasing something on social media was painful and inefficient, and most people saved their shopping for traditional retail sites. No longer: in-app purchasing on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest has evolved dramatically in recent months, enabling social media users to finally pick up their goods without leaving the virtual neighbourhood.

And just like neighbourhoods, every platform is different. We learned through our latestintegration with Instagram that featuring just one or two products—rather than an entire catalogue—can be key to catching someone’s eye. Just take thisBraniacs projector or Ripple Yoga Wear jumpsuitthat were all over the site for Black Friday. The rise of in-app shopping means social media is finally bringing one of the time-honoured traditions in retail online: the impulse buy.  

The biggest trend of all in 2018: change. Fuelled by technology, shopping is evolving in ways we couldn’t have anticipated even a few years ago. (I’m talking to you, Alexa.) But for retailers who can keep up—and leverage new tools to give people what they want, when they want it—the promise may well be more customers and higher sales than ever in the year ahead.

Harley Finkelstein is the chief operating officer of Shopify.

This column originally appeared on Forbes and is republished with permission.

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