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5 Unexpected Places E-Commerce Retailers Might Be Selling Their Products by 2021

Dave LeDonne

2016 has a lot in store for e-commerce retailers, and there’s no stopping innovation beyond that. A lot could change in five years, and it’s awfully fun to speculate how a fast-paced industry like retail e-commerce might evolve. Here’s a rundown of five e-commerce channels that could develop in the years to come.

1. The Uber Store: One-Click Purchase-and-Delivery

Much has been written about Uber’s plans for world domination. Uber’s website says it is “evolving the way the world moves.” That’s a pretty big statement, and certainly “the world” doesn’t need to be limited to just people who need a ride — which makes it understandable to see Uber exploring product delivery.

But why stop at just delivering products? Imagine a scenario where Uber integrates with e-commerce websites to not only facilitate delivery, but also purchase, in all the locations worldwide where Uber operates.

Consumers could search products within the Uber app. With one click, consumers could place an order and send a driver on the way to deliver it in a matter of hours. Now that’s pretty cool.

2. Backseat Selling — Spearheaded by Tesla

SkyMall created the ability to shop on a plane, but what about the ability to shop in a car? Tesla could be just the company to bring it to market.

First of all, why shouldn’t consumers be able to order that thing they just remembered as their mind drifts off during a long drive? Second, Tesla is pursuing the self-driving vehicle as hard as anyone, and the autopilot mode it recently launched looks pretty cool. (Elon, hook me up with a Model S test drive so I can speak more accurately about it!)

That begs the question, what are consumers going to be doing once they don’t have to actually drive a car? They’ll shop — using a WiFi-enabled touchscreen computer built into the dashboard or seatbacks, and/or with in-car voice controls.

(Side note: If Google’s self-driving cars come to fruition, you can bet Sidecar will be serving Google Shopping ads in those babies!)

3. The RFID, Beacon, and Mobile Payment Trifecta

This is an idea for e-commerce retailers that also have brick-and-mortar stores. Imagine a consumer walks into a store, takes the red lipstick she was just viewing online, and walks out. It sounds like stealing today, but it could become a normal way to shop in the near future.

How? Using a system that integrates RFID, beacon, and mobile payment technology. RFID would track the merchandise, and beacons would track consumers walking around.

Those technologies would work together to understand that the products are physically on the consumer’s person or in her cart. When the consumer enters a certain area in the store near the exit, those products get charged to that consumer’s mobile payment account.

It sounds a little complex, but it’s possible. RFID, beacons, and mobile payments are growing quickly, and it’s definitely conceivable that they could all communicate someday. No payment cards or checkout lines needed. Talk about frictionless transactions.

4. Chat Apps Cometh

Chat apps stand to be a major new e-commerce channel. Already, Chinese Internet giant Tencent (worth 169 billion USD) is shaking up retail and other industries with its chat platform, WeChat.

In China, people can go into a restaurant, scan a QR code with WeChat, order on their phone, and then magically food appears (diners are charged right through WeChat). Consumers can also make doctor appointments and even buy a New York City apartment for $14 million on the chat app.

There are a few contenders in the U.S. that could bring e-commerce to chat apps. Facebook has talked about how it wants to make Facebook Messenger a platform for businesses and that Messenger is only “1 percent finished.”

And Slack recently introduced the ability to order a Lyft and browse Foursquare from within its platform. Both apps are signaling that they could be laying the groundwork for significant e-commerce capabilities.

5. The Extreme Virtual Assistant

With the rise of natural language processing and virtual assistants, we’re on the cusp of creating technologies that let consumers express their most immediate needs while a computer takes care of the rest (a la Amazon Echo).

But what if consumers don’t know what they want? I know I do a lot of online research before a purchase (probably way too much), and I would really like to hand that task off.

As virtual assistants get more sophisticated and have access to more data (imagine this being as creepy as you can tolerate), it’s possible that consumers could eventually say something like, “[Insert your favorite virtual assistant], I need a new TV for the living room. My budget is between $700 and $1,200.”

Then the assistant would figure out the best option based on those directions, as well as several other factors: the wall size, location, and lighting (from smart home systems); reviews (not just stars, but also consumer feedback); and the types of shows the consumer watches (through streaming activity or a connected system, such as Comcast’s X1).

Lastly, the assistant would order (with the shopper’s approval) that perfect 55″ UHD LED TV, which would arrive the next day. The assistant would probably hook the shopper up with a wall mount too, and maybe a handyman to install it, without so much as an ask.

(On this note, The North Face recently launched a cool personal shopping assistant powered by IBM Watson called XPS. Worth checking out.)

Regardless of whether any of this comes true, I’m excited to see what happens in the next five years. Here’s hoping it’s way cooler than I can imagine!

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