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Stealth commerce: the new retail frontier

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OMG suggest that marketers need to embrace stealth commerce and new retail to survive more testing market conditions.

If we look at the evolution of e-commerce, we can see this has been rather limited and at times, could be described as a digitalised version of the traditional mail order catalogue model.

Yet, for the first time in over 30 years, this is changing, with several catalysts driving the New Retail revolution, into what’s becoming known as ‘Stealth Commerce’.

The phrase Stealth Commerce has been coined by Jason Greenwood, founder and presenter of the At The Coalface Podcast; it was also the focal point of his talk at E-comm Live last week.

Simply put, Stealth Commerce is a form of completely frictionless retail, “A scenario in which the customer no longer recognises a transaction as a transaction”, as Greenwood describes.

The first step into this new retail experience, moving away from the traditional mail order catalogue model and blurring the lines between online and offline, is contextual commerce. Examples of this would be social commerce, AR, digital experiences and voice commerce. But whilst these examples represent an evolution of the traditional model, they still involve a level of manual processing and decision-making from the customer, who is still ultimately authorising a transaction consciously.

“e-commerce is rapidly evolving into new retail. The boundary between offline and online commerce disappears as we focus on fulfilling the personalised needs of each customer,” says Jack Ma, co-founder at Alibaba.

In various Asian regions such as China, where new retail is significantly ahead of the Western world, traditional transactional eCommerce sites are taking a backseat to new retail experiences such as marketplaces, social commerce and biometrics.

There are many factors accelerating the new retail revolution and setting up modern commerce for the next jump into fully frictionless and fully personalised commerce. For example:

  • UX friction and abandoned carts (both online and in store)

  • Expense and complexity of expanding into new channels

  • Marketplaces

  • Internet of things/5G/voice

  • ‘Smartification’ including XR and AI

  • Consumers desire to reclaim time as a top commodity

But what about the here and now. What are active stealth commerce examples in the current landscape?

  • Subscription models – implies a level of automation but there are still various factors that affect the frequency by which a product is repurchased and other consumer needs which may require them to halt or modify the subscription.

  • ‘Soft bumping’– marketing automation and data ownership allow targeted communication with the consumer to nudge them into repurchasing, where it’s estimated a product is close to running out. This can be achieved with existing and not overly sophisticated technology, but still implies a conscious action from the customer to close the transaction.

  • Smart products – items such as the Levi’s smart jacket, with an embedded Bluetooth chip, connected to the user’s smartphone, recoding information such as how many times the garment has been washed.

An example of commerce getting closer to a full stealth experience, would be where a consumable product has a technology, such as a chip, embedded into the packaging. This would allow it to communicate its content level in real time to the brand or chosen retailer and based on pre-set preferences, automatically ship out a replacement when those levels are hit.

Looking at the future, winners will be more easily found in D2C brands, established brands, major players and, in the shorter term, consumable goods. New brands and traditional multi-retail will find it harder to embrace this model which is based on ownership of first-party data and brand trust.

In a post-Covid era, where brands will struggle to cut through and must fight to stay relevant, embracing stealth commerce and new retail may be the only way to build resilience to the challenging market conditions and come out as winners.

Chiara Lucchini, is e-commerce manager at OMG Transact.

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