The Brands at the Forefront of Ecommerce | Aaron Orendorff of Shopify

What’s coming next in ecommerce?

Aaron Orendorff is uniquely positioned to say.

As the Editor in Chief for Shopify Plus, Aaron has deep insights into the rapidly changing world of ecommerce — especially how new brands are building audiences of loyal and engaged customers. He’s keeping an eye on everything from augmented reality to China’s mobile-first ecomm infrastructure, and has an opinion on it all.

Because Aaron is constantly interviewing Shopify Plus brand leaders for case studies, he has had a front seat to watch upstart brands grow from nothing to millions in sales in just a few years. Through a combination of passion for their product and building a base of rabid fans, he’s identified a number of patterns that help the top brands stand out from the rest.

Watch Episode 15: The Empowered Marketer

In this exclusive interview, Aaron shares:

  • The benefits and challenges of today’s ecommerce market
  • How to start a successful ecommerce brand from the ground up
  • The ecommerce brands he’s obsessed with
  • …and much more.

Listen to the Full Conversation

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Read the Top 4 Takeaways

1. Do you think it’s become easier or harder to get into ecommerce right now? Are you seeing a lot of new companies form and grow really quickly?

The barrier to entry is really low, but that also means competition is ramped up. Search is incredibly competitive. Knowing how to navigate Amazon is a beast, especially when your business grows to a certain size. Amazon is everybody’s best friend until Amazon notices you, and then it can get pretty scary.

So it’s a lot easier to get in and it is easier to rapidly scale. In the recent Mary Meeker internet trends report, she had a graph of all these companies scaling to over $100 million through the use of social media and other channels. It was incredibly encouraging to see the time cycle to go from zero to 100 million was around two to four years.

You can scale a lot faster especially if you’re coming at it with a passion for the product you’re selling. That’s what I see as the big mistake that ecommerce business leaders make — they start out in ecommerce as a way to make money, versus starting with the product. So many of the real amazing success stories that we get to cover on the Shopify Plus blog are about people that reverse that.

Someone like Gymshark has just had insane growth — peaking at over 52 million in a very short period of time. He started by sewing the clothes himself. He wanted to carve out a niche in an industry that was crowded, but wasn’t serving this particular segment. He built it organically, which is why they have such a strong presence on Facebook and especially Instagram. You’ll see this over and over again if you look through the case studies. There’s always an origin story that’s connected to product, rather than just trying to make money.

2. When it comes to ecommerce technology, what do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing B2C marketers? And what is a common mistake that a lot of ecommerce leaders make when it comes to technology?

Tech stack is a really hot topic the larger a business gets. This is behind a lot of scaling issues that people just don’t see coming. It’s not super hard to ramp up things like ad spend or even the tools for conversion rate optimization. But there are a few things that are the biggest mistakes or pain points with technology.

One is crossing the mobile divide. Everybody now knows that mobile browsing exceeds desktop browsing. It’s just a given. But despite all the prognostications, mobile buying itself still lags behind desktop buying. People in the West especially are conditioned to purchase through a traditional computer.

This makes multi-channel marketing absolutely critical. If you’re attracting customers through mobile, you have to have a very sophisticated way of tracking those customers once they leave your site on mobile and come back on desktop, as well as a way to bring them back on desktop.

Mobile is also a challenge when it comes to optimizing buying through mobile. You have to study how your customers interact with your check out and strip away as much as you possibly can. Shorten the number of screens, shorten the number of buttons, pre-populate fields if they’re coming back, use social login because a lot of people already have accounts synced with shipping and payment information. All of these things shorten strip down the check out process in particular, making it as lightweight and quick as possible.

Another challenge is it’s one thing to build a brand and a following and product awareness on social media — it’s another thing to know how to convert that following into customers. Instagram’s sort of like the beast in the room beside Amazon. The problem is you still have to leave Instagram to make a purchase. It’s not native to the experience. Instagram just rolled out product tagging and all of the headlines from mainstream media explode because Instagram you can now shop natively. But that’s only true, sort of. You can tag a product to get rid of the problem of not having links inside of a post. But it’s still not a native shopping experience.

The big mistake is to follow innovation for innovation’s sake, and to believe the things you read in mainstream publications without actually asking if it works for your business.

3. Do you think more brands should shift their focus away from new customer acquisition and focus more on repeat purchase rate? Are you seeing more brands do that?

It’s a no-brainer that retention matters. All the data constantly shows it costs less to sell to repeat customers. I think the really hard thing is measurement. It’s tough to really measure repeat purchase rate and tiered systems of customers. How do you monitor and immediately tag a customer when they break the $100 threshold or the $500 threshold? It really is tough.

It’s easy and there’s such immediate results from customer acquisition, and it’s the sexy work because it’s easier and you can measure it immediately. You can run a campaign, check click-through rates, and do return on ad spend. It just becomes the default mechanism.

But in all of the high-growth cases, the people at the forefront are doubling down on retention. It’s a hurdle to figure out how to measure. I mean, honestly, it’s insane the number of incredibly large brands that are copy-pasting numbers from dashboards into Excel spreadsheets once a month to figure it out. But they do that hard, un-sexy work to at least measure it and then begin to do something like through email marketing or your ecommerce platform to create tiered reward structures or a loyalty program.

A customer’s bought from you and so you have their email address. You can use that to organize all of the data around it. And then at the very least, once they cross a threshold, they get a friendly email. They get some sort of gift certificate. They get an exclusive discount and that you’re always following up for reviews, recommendations, and a referral program.

4. What trends are going to shape the world of ecommerce? What do you think is coming next?

If you want to know what the future of ecommerce looks like, study China. Because of the way its infrastructure and technology and urbanization projects all overlap and interlock, and the way it developed it over the last 30 years, China ended up leapfrogging things like the desktop personal computer and went straight to mobile. They jumped over fulfillment the way that we’ve grown here in the West through the United States Postal Service, then into UPS and DHL and these third-party providers. They went straight to same-day expectation delivery.

They are a mobile-dominant ecommerce society. Everything is built on top of WeChat and Alibaba. And because Alibaba isn’t a competitor the way Amazon is a competitor, it’s a real thriving marketplace that gives room for entrepreneurs to grow and not have to worry about the platform that they’re on devouring them. If you want to understand the future of ecommerce, look to China.

But don’t jump too soon. It’s really dangerous. I think I banged this drum at the beginning. It’s really dangerous to read something like the future of ecommerce in a place like China and be like, “All right. All in on mobile.” Yeah, but we’re not there yet. You can’t go all in. It’s not quite ready, so some of the traditional things like email are still your money makers.

Learn more about Aaron Orendorff and Shopify Plus at