Here are eight trends that will affect online retailers in 2021:

1. Visual immersion will drive sales 

In 2021, cocooning humans will spend more time at home than ever before; they'll lean into the virtual using video and rich, smart imagery to guide their e-commerce choices for both work and home.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has radically shifted buyer behaviour, both in the business-to-consumer (B2C) and business-to-business (B2B) sectors. Today, buying is done increasingly remotely, which means that visual content (be it still, 360 or video) is more important than it ever was to customers.

Humanity's buying and selling habits have changed forever and virtualising experience will mean creating hyper-real experiences with smart imaging.

Sales for global retail e-commerce is expected to reach $4.9-trillion USD in 2021 and this is a massive opportunity for the South African e-commerce cohort that is readily embracing innovation to leap ahead.

Brand owners are now embracing artificial intelligence and robotics, together with new video and imagery solutions, to get them to market faster while improving the user experience.

2. TikTok will drive video engagement

As 2020 comes to a close, the big news is that social media gorilla TikTok is investing heavily in social commerce and has done a major e-commerce deal with Shopify.

TikTok is massive, with over 800 million users, and the partnership will see Shopify's one million merchants enjoy better access to TikTok's huge audience. Given that TikTok is hugely popular with Generation-Z and is video-driven, this means that the move to video is a media trend that retailers can't ignore in 2021.

3. Visual automation will thrive

Agility and innovation will be central to marketing, which will lean into photographic automation to drive better speed to market and to increase responsiveness.

The traditional way of doing a photoshoot was about hiring crews and equipment, but automation tools for e-comm studios has penetrated the video and photography sector. This is credited to advances in both robotics and artificial intelligence, resulting in costs per image being reduced 10x and producing 4x more photos per day.

Today's fashion and e-commerce world demand speed to market; this has seen the rise of automated product photography equipment with software-controlled compact studios for still and 360° product photography, as well as video.

High-end machinery and all-in-one solutions allow clients to cut costs on equipment and eliminate repetitive tasks for teams. It additionally minimises post-processing time.

The interface of these studios is simple and anyone can produce a high-end shoot faster than ever before. Because of this, in a recessionary environment, we've seen a 300% growth year on year.

Why? Because automation that delivers better quality means taht e-tailers can be freed up to obsess about every customer detail in the effort to differentiate and personalise services and products.

4. Safer creative working environments will be on the rise

COVID-19 has changed the way we work and part of this will be ensuring safe working environments where we are protected, calm and able to do our best work.

In the worlds of retail and fashion, where video and photographic shoots have meant clusters of teams working closely together, photographic and video automation will bring better safety standards.

Technology will enable brand owners to create sophisticated, innovative shoots at the touch of a button. This will do away with the requirement for huge, expensive fashion shoots and will enable a new generation of creativity with safer working environments. This is important, given that COVID-19 will not go away sometime soon.

5. Authenticity will matter more

Authenticity is everything and will be pivotal to building trust with customers in both B2B and B2C markets.

From a digital retail perspective, consumers are increasingly looking for authenticity and this has been a rallying point for building trust and connections.

From a video and photography perspective, this means paring back, bringing in natural colours and shying away from overt photographic manipulation. In a world where trust is the biggest conversion factor, leaning hard into authenticity creates better credibility and believability.

6. There will be a bigger need for speed

Getting your product online quickly, accurately and with a large degree of consistency is key to how your consumers engage with your brand. No matter the size of your business, this is critical.

For global retailers like Zulily, for example, speed to market is everything; its is a pressure that will continue in 2021 and filter to smaller brands. Zulily offers customers 'a new store every day'. To achieve this, the massive retailer cuts down on time wastage by keeping photography in-house and using photographic automation.

Zulily typically loads up more than 9 000 products a day on its website. To achieve the kind of photographic quality and style that the brand's 700 000 daily visitors expect, Zulily uses industrialised photography processes and photographic automation.

This means a new season, with thousands and thousands of products can be shot in a number of days. 

7. Minimalism and simplicity will trend

A global pandemic has made the world more chaotic, unpredictable, complex and stressed. In this context, trends show that consumers long for simplicity and minimalism.

In terms of photography, this means that less is more in a 'busy and complex world'. Visual imagery and video play a powerful role in contributing to the user experience, and in 2021 customers will want balance, calmness and pared-back image styling.

Another expression of this trend is that customers will increasingly look for photography that hasn't been obviously manipulated or changed by Photoshop. Because of this, brand owners will need to focus on creating product shots and styled photography that looks and feels natural.

8. Virtual and augmented reality will be mainstream

Now that humans are familiar with online shopping, they will want to try before they buy. This is where virtual and augmented reality comes into play.

Customers want the benefit of being as close to reality as possible but without the risk of being exposed to other humans that they don’t know in the real-world retail environment.

Augmented reality and virtual reality can plug the gap here and give humans the opportunity to 'try-before-you-buy'. However, what will be critical to ensuring the integrity of experience will be the quality of the photography.

With automation, retailers can achieve both quality and speed, which means automation can provide the right imaging for virtual and augmented reality quickly and easily.

E-commerce is projected to reach $4.9-trillion USD by 2021, providing a massive market for South African and African retailers looking for recovery and growth. Science shows that 90% of what our brains process is visual, which is why leaning into video, and using a smarter approach to photography and visual imagery, will drive e-commerce growth.

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