Many online retailers must work harder to create a more personalised and interactive experience which does a better job of reflecting their brand, writes Aliya Zaidi.

A recent Future Trends Briefing, hosted by Conchango in association with The Future Laboratory, got us thinking hard about the online shopping experience and what e-tailers can do to differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Much of the discussion on the day revolved around how luxury brands are continuing to focus on the exclusivity and scarcity factor when it comes to the in-store experience.

An on-going challenge for high-end brands is to ensure that they can recreate this luxury experience online, while simultaneously ensuring that usability is up-to-scratch.

What is very clear – and of relevance to all brands – is that changing consumer attitudes will strongly impact on the next wave of innovation, as we approach the expectation economy (PDF). This is driven by greater consumer empowerment, as shopping comparison sites, consumer-centric blogs, wikis and now social networks all mean that customers are increasingly clued up on what’s on offer, raising the bar on their expectations.

Not only are consumers demanding greater value and transparency when it comes to online retailing, but they will also expect an experience that closely resembles the in-store shopping retail environment.

With many retailers offering a highly personalised, individual in-store experience, it’s somewhat surprising that there hasn’t been a similar pattern emerging online. Whilst Web 2.0 remains the favourite buzz-word of many digital marketers, the online shopping experience is still relatively Web 1.0.

So what’s next for the online store?

One of the key trends to look out for will be a shift in control from the merchant to the consumer. Instead of the company offering a selection of products, retailing will become more about an on-demand experience, offering the consumer what they want, when they want it.

Technologies such as AJAX and Flash have already helped to take the “click and wait” aspect out of e-commerce, as they allow websites to serve new content without reloading the page. This means that metrics such as the time spent on a website have become more relevant, with traditional metrics such as page views already looking outdated.

In 2008, the question for many marketers is how to monetise social networks and integrate them into the overall online retail experience. Collaborative social shopping is a key trend, which some savvy internet retailers have already begun to embrace.

Oli, the online fashion and technology retailer, allows users to put together their own outfits on a personalised “Look Book” and share this with a network of friends.

The lingerie e-tailer, KnickerPicker, bills itself as the world’s first online video dressing room. KnickerPicker uses videos of models to allow consumers to see what particular products look like. The site even lets consumers to direct their model of choice in any direction they please.

Lingerie retailer, KnickerPicker

Moving this forward, the online shop of the future will allow you – virtually – to “try before you buy” by uploading a picture of yourself to a virtual online dressing room. You could then connect to your friends via a social network and get their opinions before making a purchase.

The social network may even have a role to play in the offline in-store experience. Last year, Engadget reported on IconNicholson’s panelled, interactive magic mirror, which allows customers to super-impose a selection of outfits on themselves. Consumers can then connect to friends online via a live video feed to get on-the-spot feedback.

What does all this mean for my website?

Not every e-commerce site will need to integrate all of these new technologies, but e-tailers need to plan how to incorporate relevant technologies into their digital presence.

In the online store environment, customers will expect faster, more effective browsing, making use of single-screen technology that allows them to add items to their shopping cart without leaving the page.

As control shifts from the merchant, custom product configurations will become the norm. The ability to sort items dynamically and merchandise products together to quickly find similar products will also be a key requirement.

Some websites have already begun to use this technology. Pixsta, for example, a next-generation visual search engine, uses image recognition technology to allow users to find similar products based on colour, size, shape, pattern or texture.

The demand for greater choice and transparency will be reflected in a seamless online environment that allows consumers to shop and compare items across many sites. Currently, most shopping carts allow users to save items but not all sites make it possible to retrieve them at a later date.

Overall, as consumer expectations rise, we will see an online environment that differentiates itself based on customer experience, which closely resembles the retail environment of a physical store.

Spectacular failures, such as may have previously made retailers wary of experimenting with the online store format, but it’s worth remembering that creating a differentiated online experience no longer has to come at the expense of usability.

Whilst change is inevitable, the key is to be aware of these trends now, so you can be adequately prepared for what’s coming just around the corner.