SINGAPORE - It was formerly uncharted territory for many retail businesses, but the online space quickly became the place to be in 2020.
As pandemic lockdowns shut brick-and-mortar stores in phases around the world, shoppers moved their consumption of goods and services online.
E-commerce players such as Lazada, Shopee and Zalora turfed out physical retailers, with each reporting major spikes in platform and user growth.
For Lazada Singapore, "2020 was a year of breaking records", says its chief executive James Chang.
The platform's monthly sales hit nine figures for the first time in June and saw its highest traffic in September. It broke new records in November with more than one million visitors on Singles' Day on Nov 11 - the world's biggest sales event - alone.
Regionally, it saw more than 100 million users access the app in July.
Mr Chang says: "We have also seen a wide adoption of e-commerce this year, with many brands (such as Marks & Spencer and Under Armour), sellers and users getting on the Lazada platform for the first time. It is a reflection of the seismic shift in how businesses see e-commerce as a core business strategy."
Fellow online marketplace Shopee saw users here spend more time in-app, an average of 40 per cent more a week, says its chief commercial officer Zhou Junjie.
Direct engagement between brands and sellers also rose, with over 200,000 messages sent daily on average; and a hike of 40 times in the number of Shopee Live streams from brands and sellers.
Consumers headed online first for more needs too, says Mr Zhou, pointing to the increased demand for fitness and yoga equipment, and bigger-ticket items such as electronics and furniture.
"E-commerce has evolved beyond being a platform to purchase essential needs, to one that connects people and businesses," he adds.
Over at Zalora, more than two million users downloaded its app in the second quarter of 2020, with the share of new consumer contribution to revenues jumping by more than 100 per cent. Growth in online shopping in Singapore also "skyrocketed by 109 per cent" in 2020, according to Zalora's Trender Report published in December.
Consumers are now more confident and open to buying things online, a habit they developed during lockdown, says Zalora's senior strategy director Quiron Cunha.
"Retail businesses are realising that digital can no longer be optional in their strategy and many have adopted an omnichannel approach," he adds.
The year ahead continues to look rosy for the online marketplace.
E-retailers tell The Sunday Times they predict that live streams and immersive social commerce will be the next big thing in online shopping.
Regionally, Shopee observed an increase in live streams of up to 70 times. During its 12.12 shopping festival on Dec 12, the platform clocked 2.7 billion plays on in-app games and 450 million views on Shopee Live over three weeks.
Creating an engaging and personalised experience for the shopper is critical to standing out in a crowded marketplace, says Mr Zhou. "Today's users are more social and demand a more meaningful and entertaining online shopping experience. Shopee continuously improves its in-app engagement features (to make) the experience more social."
Mr Cunha says: "As people spend more time on social media platforms, reaching them through interactive features is key in getting their attention."
He foresees influencers or content creators continuing to shape shopping behaviour. "These new influencers - normal people who built their own brands through stimulating content on social media - are more relatable than traditional celebrities. About 71 per cent of consumers are more likely to make a purchase online based on social media referrals."
Advancements in technology, he adds, will plug gaps in omnichannel consumption, such as trying on clothing. "Soon, shifts in augmented reality and virtual reality tech will enable a better execution of virtual trials, which are not only immersive but also engaging."
Mr Chang sees live streaming as "the next frontier of shopping online, especially in a post-pandemic world".
He says: "The (Lazada) marketplace has become livelier with a multitude of brands holding events, product launches and live streams.
"With Covid-19 accelerating the normalisation of online shopping, we expect this trend to endure as economies resume and more brands, retailers and malls migrate online."