The Drum Awards Festival - Extended Deadline

-d -h -min -sec

E-commerce Agency Advice Technology

How do you solve a problem like... e-commerce’s lack of serendipity?


By Sam Bradley, Journalist

November 10, 2020 | 9 min read

In this new opinion series, we ask readers of The Drum from brands, agencies and everything in between, for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners.

yellow question marks

How do you solve a problem like... e-commerce’s lack of serendipity?

This week, we asked the industry a real head-scratcher. With bricks-and-mortar shopping taking a huge hit this year, online retail has become the main channel for many consumers to buy products of all kinds. Even retail brands that traded on the quality of their in-store environment, such as Lush, have been prompted to shift more of their eggs into the e-commerce basket.

But while the e-commerce experience has been streamlined and perfected over the years, there is one aspect in-person shopping has always held over it: serendipity. The potential for a surprise bargain or find is what drives so many shoppers to do much of their Christmas shopping in person, even amid a pandemic (in-person shopping is expected to account for £22bn worth of Christmas spend this year).

So, what can e-commerce platforms and retail brands do to provide that extra spice for customers in the run-up to the biggest spending period of the year?

How do you provide serendipity for customers in an e-commerce environment?

azlan raj

Azlan Raj, chief marketing officer EMEA, Merkle

In 2020, serendipity and ‘surprise and delight‘ have arguably been replaced by phrases of convenience and utility, such as ‘please be in stock‘. Consumers‘ mindsets have shifted from ‘How can we make this amazing?‘ (perhaps with birthdays/holidays in mind) to ‘Can this even happen?‘ So there’s a new expectation on what ‘surprise and delight’ means as the perception of value changes for consumers.

This puts more pressure on brands to ensure their online shopfronts and physical warehouses are joined up digitally to not let customers down. Beyond that, brands can create serendipity by knowing who their customers are and what they‘d consider a ‘surprise find‘. This involves investment in audience segmentation, to build more personal customer experiences and create relevant offers to products that fit this profile. It‘s not a stretch to imagine someone who identifies as a ‘wine drinker‘ may view a decanter as a great surprise gift for a friend or partner, but without the correct data and proper segmentation these moments are impossible for brands to build.

ursula hardy headshot

Ursula Hardy, platform solutions manager, Kagool

The online customer journey is completely different from in-store experiences. Customers want to feel like they’ve found something different or special in-store, and that requires store curators and designers showcasing products shoppers might not have originally considered.

How do you replicate that experience online? This is something influencers excel at. Influencers are curators, sharing product experiences through stories and posts, and can inspire and drive consideration around products that consumers wouldn’t necessarily think to search for. Brands looking to replicate the in-store shopping experience should rethink their customer experience strategy and find smarter, innovative ways to join up their customers’ on- and offline experiences.

marcos angelides

Marcos Angelides, chief Strategy and innovation officer, Spark Foundry

Brands often talk about the importance of experiences over products. Yet when it comes to e-commerce, the opposite is true. Out goes experience in favour of simple and ‘frictionless’ journeys. Experiences are seen as distractions and distractions cost money.

Yet in China, the perspective is different. Experiences aid e-commerce. Surprising and delightful experiences keep people on site for longer, which increase the chances they will buy. It’s why Taobao hosts music concerts and live streams (generating over 150,000 hours of content a day). And as Singles Day is the most profitable day of the year, perhaps it is on to something.

nate skinner

Nate Skinner, co-managing director and head of strategy, Stink Studios

It’s about two key things: curation and context. Shopping online is so mass at this point – there’s so much choice, discovery is almost paralyzing. Curating smaller collections, or groups of different products that work together, give shoppers permission to go outside their intended shopping purpose and explore products they may not have realized they wanted or needed.

It contextualizes products on a deeper level than simply showing similar products. or do this well – offering a huge selection, but quickly narrowing your choices, presenting a point of view and inspiring confidence that you’re discovering something worthwhile.

josh greenberg

Joshua Greenberg, co-founder and managing director, Caveat

Even with e-commerce, there are still plenty of ways to ‘surprise‘ customers with the perfect gift. People love the idea of knowing they’re one of the few to have something, so perhaps brands play with exclusivity to provide serendipity.

Limited edition items or bundles can mimic the feeling of nabbing the last item in stock within a retail store – especially when they’re unexpected. In a world where anyone can have almost anything delivered to your doorstep, it’s fun to know that you’re one of the few getting your items.

charlotte mair

Charlotte Mair, managing director, The Fitting Room

I am a strong believer that collaboration is the new competition and there is a great opportunity for e-commerce brands to utilise this – especially if the collaboration can be unexpected. With brands investing so much in paid media, along with social media doing its thing with algorithms, digital strategists think they know everything you ‘need’. But what about the things you want?

If we take a look at ‘retailtainment’, aligning that with collaboration could be the win. Let’s say I’m ordering some wine online – I would love to get to the checkout stage and be surprised with a bath bomb from Lush, for example. What I need is a chilled glass of rosé, what I want is to unwind in the tub with it.

jonathon ben

Jonathon Ben-Haim, head of creative strategies, SundaySky

While some recommendations and shopping experiences are transparently targeted (we’ve all experienced the ads that follow us around the internet), there are still a wealth of individualized moments that bring serendipitous surprises. Spotify and YouTube are great brand examples of how you can amaze a consumer with their new favourite artist or channel through targeted recommendations during their browsing experience.

I encourage retailers to emulate that model in two ways. First by creating engaging digital experiences using interactive and emotionally intelligent content that inspires brand exploration, while allowing the brand to learn more about their audience. Second, brands can utilize that information to create more sophisticated recommendation engines geared towards helping consumers discover new and relevant products. This will also help show customers you care during their key moments of choice and consideration. Through our work with DTC, retail and e-commerce brands like Staples, Meijer and, we’ve found the results are more successful when presented in an immersive and engaging medium like video.

sudipta headshot

Sudipta Sengupta, associate strategy director, Muh-Tay-Zik/Hof-fer

Discovery has been such a crucial part of human evolution, but over the past couple of decades, algorithms have made our digital experiences increasingly predictable. While this makes it extremely efficient, that joy of discovering something totally unexpected is lost. In order to fuel that sense of discovery online, brands need to ace two crucial things that IRL experiences deliver.

One, unexpected curation: creating collections of unexpected products/content/artefacts that open people up to newness. Two, mechanisms that surprise and delight: breaking away from traditional website rules and building spaces that nudge serendipitous discovery like ‘new release’ galleries, shuffle buttons, explorative scrolling.

scott macleod

Scott MacLeod, director of planning, Via

In the midst of wildfires, recounts and our own doomscrolling, we’ve turned to our personal oasis of serendipity – TikTok. By embracing TikTok’s algorithms (’A-Com’ as coined by Scott Galloway), retailers can make smart, surprising suggestions that are easy to buy in a place where people are primed for happiness.

TikTok’s ‘Unwrap the Deals‘ challenge for Walmart is one example – a simple filter revealing new Black Friday deals on the heads of TikTok’s most popular creators. TikTok’s partnership with Shopify to let small businesses create shoppable content from their inventories will spread this serendipity even further.

george gottl

George Gottl, founder and chief creative officer, UXUS

Physical environments are where shoppers explore and discover what brands and their products are about. They move through spaces serendipitously and engage spontaneously, often discovering products and experiences they did not expect. Coronavirus has limited that experience and so brands need to be able to recreate those spontaneous moments online as well.

This is where brands can adapt experiences from the gaming world and use them to create unexpected moments of delight for customers exploring a brand’s e-commerce experience. Gamification is an endless source of inspiration and a new frontier for retail in any channel, and customers are ready now for what the phygital world can offer, taking both the brand and the customer to a next-gen level experience.

Any thoughts? Email me at to be included in upcoming editions.

E-commerce Agency Advice Technology

More from E-commerce

View all


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +