Headshot of Amit Sharma

We’re coming to the end of a decade of constantly rising consumer expectations, but the trend will only continue as we enter the 2020s. The past 10 years brought a lot of change. In 2010, on-demand services were just emerging, and we thought about mobile in terms of social apps, not commerce. This year, for the first time ever, it’s likely that more people will make purchases on mobile than on desktop.

The next decade will be even more transformative for retail. Along with advances in technology, retailers will need to stay ahead of generational shifts and changing consumer preferences. Gen Z alone spends $143 billion a year and is already influencing how brands relate to and communicate with their customers.

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More shoppers want brands to reflect their ethics and lifestyle and to adapt to their individual needs. Here’s what that means for retailers’ priorities in 2020 and beyond.

Sustainability: Communicating environmentally friendly practices

Consumers are paying more attention to the environmental impact of retail and, specifically, ecommerce. Going into the 2020s, shoppers will expect increased transparency from brands about their environmental impact. Brands will need to provide clear information prior to purchase about how their items are sourced, manufactured and delivered.

Online searches for sustainable fashion rose three times in the past three years, and many consumers will now go out of their way to shop with brands that have environmentally-conscious practices. But there’s more to being sustainable than reducing cardboard and plastic.

More shoppers want brands to reflect their ethics and lifestyle and to adapt to their individual needs.

Retailers should also consider giving shoppers more choice when it comes to reducing their carbon footprint. For instance, providing the option to consolidate orders into one shipment. Simple messaging updates, such as encouraging in-store returns as a greener choice (which shoppers are more inclined to do), can also inform shoppers that a brand aligns with their values.

Flexibility: Relating to consumers as renters

Due to a combination of more conscious consumption and the success of rental models like Rent the Runway, flexible buying options are gaining steam. Renting gives consumers access to an ever-changing wardrobe without breaking the bank or creating excess waste. The rental subscription market is expected to reach $2.5 billion by 2023.

Direct-to-consumer brands aren’t the only ones offering flexible shopping. Established retailers are also attempting to hook non-committal shoppers. Express, Bloomingdale’s, Anthropologie and Vince have already introduced rental services.

Retailers should master their operations before jumping on this trend. Now that consumers expect timely shipments and easy returns, logistics make or break these services. In the 2020s, retailers will need to learn from the mistakes of earlier iterations (i.e., unprofitable subscription services) and gain insight into their supply chain, fulfillment, delivery and returns.

says adweek 2019 in review in a blue sparkly diamond
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Convenience: Embracing and improving returns

As more shopping happens online and younger shoppers expect brands to cater to their needs, retailers need to think differently about returns. Specifically, they should view returns as a core part of the shopping journey and a major touchpoint with their customers. Tedious or limited return policies can seriously hurt conversion and limit repeat sales, but a convenient experience will leave a positive impression.

Digital-first brands have already embraced this customer-centric philosophy. For instance, Zappos’ seamless returns process translates into a 75% repeat customer rate. Don’t underestimate the power of building relationships during the return process.

In 2020, we’ll see brands better incorporating returns into consumers’ day-to-day lives and offering more convenient options for delivery and returns. Retailers will leverage brick-and-mortar locations as mini-fulfillment centers and pick-up/drop-off points for packages. And as this trend becomes the norm, we’ll see more partnerships like Amazon teaming up with Rite Aid and Kohl’s to accept returns in stores.

The beginning of a new decade is a time for retailers to reflect on the relationships they’ve built with their customers. The brands that succeed in the coming years will be those that are closely attuned to shoppers’ needs—emotional, practical, ethical and otherwise—and can continue to evolve to exceed their expectations.

Amit Sharma is CEO and founder of Narvar.