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Ecommerce Conference 2024 - The highlights

Manchester Digital’s Ecommerce Conference 2024 saw a packed sold-out room at Circle Square for leaders, thinkers and innovators to gather together and discuss the future of the ecommerce industry. The event was introduced and concluded by Manchester Digital’s head of partnerships Kate Wilson, who pulled together the insightful and varied range of topics for the day at Bruntwood’s No 1 Circle Square. She also thanked our sponsors - Advanced Commerce, Cavu, Retail Technology and Bruntwood SciTech - for their support. 

Kate Wilson, Manchester Digital, welcome guests to the conference

The morning’s schedule offered two streams of talks from our region’s top ecommerce and tech experts, covering topics such as SEO, the immersive future of ecommerce and how to create the right omnichannel experience. 

The afternoon saw participants gather back together after lunch for a brilliantly engaging keynote speech by Charlotte Todd, who joined British Gas just over a year ago as marketing and ecommerce director. She has a brilliant career path across marketing and ecommerce, with a wide range of ecommerce experience at a number of fashion brands, including Net-a-Porter, CHAOS, Reiss and Missguided. This sector experience which focuses hugely on the customer journey and customer satisfaction has now been brought over to British Gas.

Charlotte Todd, British Gas

Chris Sheard, ecommerce director from high end sportswear retailer Castore, gave us his 10 lessons learned from his vast experience in working with fast-growth companies. Over the past seven years, he’s been instrumental in growing two Times 100 businesses - Castore and CurrentBody. His teams have launched 51 websites and four apps, and worked with such as Newcastle United, Rangers, Feyenoord, McLaren and RedBull.

The last session of the day was a panel discussion titled, ‘Automation, AI and the Future of Shopping', which was hosted by retail technology expert, speaker and author Miya Knights, who is the publisher of Retail Technology publication. 

The panel consisted of: Will Clayton, principal consultant at AND Digital; Dan Martin, client partner at Microsoft; Richard Davis, principal product lead at Auto Trader and Simon Deplitch, ecommerce director at Cavu, (which was founded by Manchester Airports Group). 

L-R Miya Knights, Will Clayton, Dan Martin, Simon Deplitch, Richard Davis

Miya Knights posed a number of questions to the panel around what AI means for the future of shopping and ecommerce. Predictive AI has been used within ecommerce and retail for some time, creating automation for elements such as pricing items on a large scale, or pricing for demand. However, we know there is a huge amount of potential around how generative AI can be used within ecommerce in the future.

The general panel consensus was that authenticity and a real connection with human experience will always be really important within retail and the ecommerce sector. However, AI, machine learning and automation will continue to develop in terms of efficiency, being able to scale, and to enhance the overall customer journey. 

An overview of the morning’s sessions: 

Stream 1 talks

Integrating Al capabilities with the essential human layer 

Mark Leach, Founder and Principal Consultant of Centre Channel, discussed how we can integrate AI capabilities into our ecommerce platforms and journeys whilst maintaining the important human touch. Mark emphasised the importance of creating online shopping experiences that provide space, peace, and meaningful connections rather than feeling like environments people want to escape from. While AI and automation can optimise efficiency, the human touch is crucial for elevating experiences from average to exceptional. 

The immersive future of digital commerce 

Vladimir Mulhem, Fractional CTO, Board Advisor and Innovation Consultant at Nuvelica, shared his insights on the current landscape for immersive commerce experiences and what the future may hold. While full-scale MR adoption may take time as consumers wait for the perfect version, he highlighted opportunities to deploy immersive technologies like 3D commerce, AR try-on, and 3D configurators today. However, Vladimir stressed implementing these shouldn't just be for the sake of it - there needs to be a compelling "why." 

Vladimir Mulhem, Nuvelica

The hidden tools in eCommerce that make you money 

Chris McCarthy-Stott, Associate Director of eCommerce at PushON, highlighted several underutilised capabilities that merchants often already pay for in their ecommerce tech stacks, but can unlock significant revenue opportunities. This included the likes of category automation, upselling, faceting/filtering, product Q&A, product reviews, search synonyms and search redirects.

AI learnings at MoneySuperMarket Group

Matt Evans, Principal Developer at MoneySuperMarket Group, shared an overview of some of their initial learnings from using generative AI over the past year, including their initial experiment with their chatbot "Wheels" to their Google like ‘MoneySuperMarket Site Search’. Some of Matt’s key takeaways were that generative AI can enable personalisation but works best combined with traditional approaches like APIs; its "creativity" can be limited; AI won't solve everything; data privacy considerations are paramount; and for niche queries, AI still struggles compared to human expertise.

Stream 2 talks  

Ecommerce SEO is evolving - how to prepare for success in 2024. 

Henry Smith, head of SEO at Dark Horse, covered the best SEO strategies for ecommerce businesses in 2024. This includes utilising Google’s organic product grids, which many retailers aren’t optimising at the moment and is a brilliant way to increase conversions. This option was rolled out in the US, before being released in the UK, so will continue to see growth. He also covered some of the best AI tools for SEO at the moment.  

How to power your microservices journey using continuous delivery and domain modelling  

Matt Belcher, principal consultant at Codurance, talked us through how to create a better microservices journey through two key strategies - continuous delivery and domain modelling. Monolith architecture structures can create various problems, and although microservices are not a silver bullet, they are better for both scaling and maintaining, and aligning with business needs.

Charting the future of digital trade 

Chris Hill, alliances director at Alibaba Cloud Europe, spoke about how generative AI is changing ecommerce enormously, as well as an overview of the range of different services provided by Alibaba. He discussed the ability to generate fashion models entirely from AI, and then change their body size, ethnicity and visual background to showcase the product. This is hugely efficient time and moneywise when working with large scale fast fashion and products. 

Chris Hill, Alibaba Cloud

How an omni-channel experience can differentiate your business 

David Seed, head of product and engineering and Tom Rowland head of customer success, from Lokulus, talked us through how an omnichannel experience can create a completely customer-centric model, providing multiple streams of information about the customer, and giving the opportunity to upsell as well. UK online businesses who embraced omnichannel in 2023 saw a 20% increase in sales. 

Thanks again to all of event partners and fantastic speakers.

Find out more about how Manchester Digital supports Greater Manchester's ecommerce sector here.

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