Delivery and logistics trends for 2021

Anna Thompson
Anna Thompson
Discover content team
7 min read
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Glad to see the back of 2020? The strangest year in living memory has turned the world upside-down, and that’s especially true of people’s purchasing habits. While some things have come and gone – like Zoom quizzes – others are here to stay. Never mind the new normal, let’s make next year the new better with a look at some 2021 e-commerce trends likely to influence your sales patterns next year.

Pandemic to leave lasting changes on e-commerce websites

The most obvious place to start is to address the cause of 2020’s global mayhem – the pandemic. COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns around the world pushed a record number of consumers online, leading them to shop online on e-commerce stores, many for the first time. As we move towards 2021, and the rollout of a vaccine gathering pace every day, the obvious question is: when will things go back to normal? Leendert van Delft, DHL Express’ VP of Sales and Marketing, has a simple answer: “never”.

“The new wave of consumers who turned to shopping online initially out of necessity, will likely stay now they have discovered the ease and convenience of doing so. Likewise, offline retailers who pivoted online in order to survive will have enjoyed the benefits of reaching new customers, and will continue to invest in their online sales channels even as stores reopen.” 


Going for gold with the silver economy and older generations

Speaking of the new wave of online shoppers, it’s time to look at the “silver surfers”. Since the pandemic began, the more distinguished members of society have been turning to online shopping like never before, and they’re just getting started. Right now, 1 in 11 people worldwide is over 65, and by 2050 (not that far away, really), that number will be 1 in 61. With more than half of seniors today using websites and applications (only to increase in the future)2, it’s up to logistics players to further digitalize and incorporate changes to their user interfaces and user experiences to accommodate older customers – if they don’t want to lose ground to age-friendly competitors, that is.

There are, primarily, two things to consider for e-commerce businesses looking to pivot to this growing market. The first, of course, is the products you have on offer. Is there an opportunity to personalise marketing them to an older audience as they are, or could they be adapted to better suit this lucrative sector? And secondly, is your site doing all it can in terms of accessibility? Is it optimized for screen readers and is it WCAG AA or AAA compliant? These small things will go a long way to attracting this new audience (and their cash).

B2B to become more flexible  

It’s not just the B2C sector that has undergone a huge shift this year – the B2B sector is in a transformative period, too. Though traditionally seen as less agile than B2C, the pandemic has highlighted the need for B2B supply chains to be more resilient and adaptable. Grounded flights and border closures meant that many B2B companies found out the hard way that their supply chains were anything but – something which DHL saw first-hand.

Leendert explains: “At the start of the pandemic, Chinese suppliers were impacted, meaning companies in Europe and America were suddenly having sourcing problems as they could not get their goods out of China. At that point, we actively reached out to our customers who were affected in this way and directed them towards suppliers in India and Pakistan where we knew we had enough shipping capabilities to get their goods to their destination. The pandemic really highlighted the need for supply chains to be more flexible.”

The way B2B sales interactions take place is changing, moving towards a more digital approach. Research by Gartner3 projects that by 2025, 80% of B2B sales interactions between suppliers and buyers will occur in digital channels4. Much of this is due to a younger workforce moving into key decision-making roles; millennials who are used to living their life online in their personal time will take those habits and expectations into the work environment. “The impact of this change will be that we expect to see smaller order volumes, but higher frequency” says Leendert. “If you are able to order whatever you like, whenever you like, it reduces the need to source supplies in bulk.”

The new working-from-home lifestyle induced by the pandemic has had an effect too – as employees’ working locations are becoming more decentralized, On-Demand and Time Definite deliveries will be more in demand. The need for fast shipping will remain, and will become more relevant for B2B markets as they catch up with B2C. The message to B2B companies is clear – start investing in your e-commerce channels now, or you’ll find yourself left behind.

The sustaining appeal of sustainability

It was a trending topic when we did this list last year – and we imagine it’ll be here next year, and the year after that, and for good reason. There’s simply no escaping the importance of sustainable logistics and sustainable packaging, so you should get on board as soon as possible. Whether it’s your packagingelectric vehicles, or your carbon footprint, people are increasingly turning away from unsustainable brands. In fact, a recent study by DS Smith5 found that 85% of consumers want to buy products that use as little packaging as possible or eco friendly packaging material, and almost a third (29%) admit that they have stopped buying particular brands altogether because their packaging was not sustainable6.

E-commerce can be more sustainable than you might think -  there is evidence to show that it actually has less impact on the environment than physical stores do, once all elements of the customer journey are factored in (building malls, town centre congestion, customers driving to the store, for example). A recent study in the US found greenhouse gas emissions for e-commerce are 17% lower than bricks and mortar retail in a base case scenario7. Still, we all have a part to play, and with that in mind (and to keep your customers coming back), it’s worth thinking about:

  • How can you make your supply chain more sustainable?  
  • How can you leverage your sustainable credentials to attract and retain customers?

The DHL GoGreen initiative is part of our commitment to reduce our logistics-related emissions to zero by the year 2050. From introducing electric vehicles into our delivery fleet, to planting trees to offset our carbon footprint, we’re committed to reaching our target. We can help you find ways to apply circular-economy principles, too.

Five-star 5G technology

What has cellular network capability got to do with your e-commerce business? EVERYTHING. There are several leading benefits to 5G, as covered in the DHL Trend Report: higher data rates for quicker surfing, ultra-low latency that supports the communication needed for autonomous vehicles, the ability to connect up to 1 million devices to a single 5G cell, and the ability to network slice, allowing bandwidth to be allocated to dedicated applications. In terms of logistics, it will allow smart roads, hyper-connected facilities, and dynamic, flexible solutions at peak times.

5G will also increase supply chain efficiencies. Supply chains are, after all, driven by data, and the faster your data, the more efficient your planning processes can be for complex operations such as cross-border deliveries.   

In short, there really is no corner of logistics that will be left untouched by 5G’s unrivalled power, so be sure your business is part of the digital transformation.


Being visible and staying adaptable with your delivery times

You know that feeling when you know your parcel is on the way? People love that feeling. In fact, they don’t just want to know when their package is on the way, they want to know exactly where it is at all times – especially when it’s time-sensitive. 5G brings with it the data capabilities to give your customers a greater and more flexible range of tracking options, even the option to re-route a package mid-delivery. In 2021, we believe this is going to be even more important, as people transition back to their office-based existences and can’t be at home in the day. Products like DHL Express’ On Demand Delivery are already answering this problem – but are you? Think about the following:

  • Are your customers always clear on where their package is?
  • If plans change, can your delivery service change with them?

Cool, calm, and collected (by you, or us)

When you’re shipping, and when your customers are receiving, convenience can make an amazing amount of difference. Being able to drop off or collect items at a secure location can make life easier for busy customers, and can consolidate many trips into one for you. It’s what makes DHL Lockers and DHL Service Point such a good offering, and one that can put your customers’ minds at ease, as well as your own. So, ask yourself:

  • How can you make life more convenient for your customers?
  • How can you take advantage of this convenience for yourself?


Return of the shipping returns

More shipments inevitably mean more of those pesky returns. They’re not going away any time soon, so it’s better that you get ahead of the game in order to make your processes as smooth as possible. We previously looked at the effect that Covid-19 has had on consumer returns – but how you handle them could be key to retaining existing customers. Think about:

  • Can you afford to offer your customers free returns? Studies have shown it encourages higher basket spend amongst online shoppers9.
  • Why are your products being returned, and what can you do to mitigate these issues?

Be transparent with your returns policy, diligent with your hygiene, and generally, make the experience as stress-free as you possibly can. 97% of consumers say they will continue to shop with a retailer that delivers a positive customer experience8, so investing in your returns service will pay off for you in the long run.

Though returns have traditionally been more of a B2C consideration, there are signs of change. With B2B orders increasingly moving online – one study in the Netherlands found the percentage of the employed labor force that placed an online business order in the past twelve months grew from 39% in 2019 to 48% this year10 – those buyers placing the orders are now expecting the same benefits afforded to them when shopping as a B2C customer. As we move into 2021, B2B businesses will need to look to B2C examples to understand how to set up returns policies effectively.

Hand sanitizer at the ready, hygiene will still be important  

Until there’s an effective vaccination system in place, Covid-19 will loom large. And, even when it’s over, the habits that people have picked up over the course of the pandemic will remain – and they should with you, too. Paul Marsh, Managing Director of The Packaging Experts has stated, “Hygiene levels of packaging is certainly on almost everyone’s mind, but there are styles of packaging and materials with antimicrobial coatings.”11 In fact, a report from Packaging Europe12 highlighted that the risk of catching the virus from packaging is extremely low, and that innovators are now turning back to the challenge of developing sustainable solutions that both promote hygiene and optimize the use of space – with developments like paper-based six-pack rings for beer and soft drinks coming back to the fore. Something to consider for the new year and beyond…


In conclusion

While no one could have predicted what 2020 had in store, 2021 looks like it may be on the way to becoming a little more, well, predictable. As ever, we’ll have all the updates you need here on Discover – so keep coming back for all the latest e-commerce news.

1 & 2 - Silver EconomyDHL.com

3 - Gartner

4 - Gartner research, Gartner Newsroom, September 2020

5 - D S Smith

6 - D S Smith study, Packaging Europe, November 2020

7 - The Carbon Footprint of RetailGeneration Insights, March 2020

8 - The impact of Covid-19 on consumer returns, Optoro, 2020

9 - Re-thinking ReturnsKlarna report, March 2019

10 - Markt Monitor 2020 study, Cross-border magazine, October 2020

11 - Paul Marsh, Canvas8, April 2020

12 - Packaging Europe, November 2020