U.S. e-commerce sales reportedly totaled $341 billion in 2015 - a 14.6% increase on the $298 billion spent in 2014.

Sound impressive?

You might be surprised to learn that the $341 billion spent online accounted for just 10.5% of retail sales in the U.S. last year.

There's no doubt that e-commerce spending is growing, but if most of our purchases still take place offline, what can e-commerce retailers do to improve the experience of shopping online and in turn increase sales?

Here are 6 innovations that have changed, or are set to change, the face of e-commerce in 2016. They might just help.

1. Shopkey

Shopkey makes it easier for Shopify store owners to manage a live chat or instant messaging service from their phone. Currently available to iPhone owners only, the app enables users to get instant access to their entire product catalog using their device's keyboard, and share links (to products) and images (of products) via their messaging service of choice (similar to how you would add an emoji to a message).

Why it's changed e-commerce

It helps Shopify store owners engage and sell to consumers anytime, and more importantly, from anywhere. This is especially valuable when you consider that sites that use live chat have been shown to generate between 4-8x more leads than those that don't.

2. Beacon Technology

Beacon technology has been around since 2013, but it's only been in the last year or so that it's really started catching on.

Its applications stretch well beyond e-commerce, but for online stores that also have physical locations, the potential it offers is huge.

For beacon technology to work, a customer must have downloaded your app - this allows the technology to monitor each user's location (internet connection permitting). From there, whenever the user in question is within a certain distance from a branch of your store, it fires them a message designed to entice them in (usually an offer, but it doesn't have to be).

Why it's changed e-commerce

It's helped align the experience of buying from an e-commerce store with that of visiting a real-life, physical shop. For many customers, it's one or the other - the customer either prefers to buy from the comfort of their home, or they prefer the hands-on, more immediate experience of shopping in a physical store. It doesn't have to be that way. Beacon technology removes that barrier and helps consumers diversify the way they shop, and brands, the way they market to them.

Mobile couponing app company RetailMeNot uses beacon technology to direct offers at users while they're out shopping. For example, its research showed that better use of technology designed to integrate the in-store and mobile shopping experiences helped UK retailers to unlock an extra £200m ($244 million dollars) in sales each year and drove more foot traffic.

3. Apple Pay

Entering card details has arguably been one of the biggest barriers to mobile online shopping - it's a little awkward at best and downright frustrating at worst - but things are changing.

Apple Pay was originally designed to make it easier for consumers to complete in-store purchases, but it's now available to Shopify store owners (and their customers) too.

The online branch of Apple Pay enables customers to complete a purchase in your store quickly and securely by tapping the Apple Pay button, and scanning their fingerprint. That's amazing technology that Shopify store owners should be getting excited about. Get it activated by clicking here.

Why it's changed e-commerce

The quicker and easier it is for customers to make a purchase, the greater the odds that they will complete it. That means more sales, higher conversion rates, and increased revenue for e-commerce store owners.

It's too early to see precisely how Apple Pay will affect online transactions but when V3 spoke to Mark Curran - Lloyds' payments and technical services director - about Apple Pay, he said it will have a "significant impact."

"Apple Pay brings something new to the market, no question. It will have a significant impact, and you don't do anything with Apple in a guarded way. You just have to look at their reach, at the type of customers they've got, the number of customers. And the service is pretty good, so I think it will take off."

4. Shopify Capital

Shopify Capital is a money lending service that offers Shopify store owners cash they can use to help them grow their companies.

It's important to note that these aren't loans, but cash advances. There are no banks involved and no monthly repayments. Instead, borrowers pay a small percentage of each sale to Shopify until the loan is repaid.

Why it's changed e-commerce

It lets small businesses access much-needed cash with none of the drawbacks of a traditional loan. There's no paperwork to complete, no interest to pay, and perhaps most critically - no minimum payment. If a store owner doesn't make sales, they don't make repayments. That's a big deal for businesses that can't afford to take on the risks associated with a bank loan. Between launch and June 30th, Shopify stated it had already "advanced over $5 million to participating merchants."

5. Buyable Pins

Pinterest's Buyable Pins let shoppers buy products without ever leaving the platform. They look almost identical to regular pins, save for a small, blue "Buy It" button that sits next to the famed "Pin It" button.

Users can save products they're interested in to a board (just like they've always done) or buy the item right away, directly through Pinterest. They simply click the Buy It button and complete their purchase using Apple Pay or with a credit card - all from within the Pinterest app.

Initially, Buyable Pins were only available to a select few big brands. Now, retailers who use one of five e-commerce platforms, including Shopify, Magento, and BigCommerce, can get instant access to the feature. Everyone else will have to add themselves to the waiting list.

Why they've changed e-commerce

They fuse social media and e-commerce in a manner that's not only great for businesses, but great for the consumer, too.

Take Facebook Ads. They're awesome for businesses, but they can be highly intrusive to consumers. Buyable Pins are different. They're a natural enhancement for the platform that actually improve user experience by making it easier for consumers to do what they want to do anyway: buy the items they see on Pinterest. This is even more exciting for retailers when you consider the fact that around 84% of Buyable Pins' customers are new to the store in question.

6. Chatbot on Facebook Messenger

Facebook Messenger is the second-most popular messaging app worldwide (if you didn't guess, WhatsApp is first). In April of this year, Shopify launched Messenger for Shopify, a Facebook Messenger-integrated plugin that lets Shopify store owners chat with their customers on their terms, and their turf.

In addition to this, the plugin features an AI-powered bot that is capable of automating a whole host of tasks, from running ads on Facebook or Instagram, to distributing email campaigns. It even allows customers to shop, ask questions, or receive updates about their purchase, all without ever leaving Facebook Messenger.

Take clothing store Spring. It uses Facebook Messenger to assist customers with an automated personal shopper service that asks questions to narrow down the type of product the customer is interested in buying, and provides recommendations.

Why it's changed e-commerce

There's a reason there are 50 million small business brand pages on Facebook - because we know that if we want to be effective at reaching, selling to, and building relationships with our customers, we have to be where they are.

This is a natural extension to using social media for business. It means customers don't have to visit our sites to interact with us or even make a purchase; the entire process can take place without the customer ever needing to leave their comfort zone - the familiarity of a chat app like Facebook Messenger.

The growth of e-commerce is fantastic for customers, who benefit from the convenience of being able to shop from anywhere at anytime - and even better for entrepreneurs, who can launch an online business for minimal capital and risk.

Numerous innovations are helping to drive this growth and ease the process of setting up shop and selling online, and in turn, building a successful e-commerce business. If you're thinking about launching an e-commerce business yourself, there has never been a better time than now.

What other innovations do you know of that have changed e-commerce this year? Let me know in the comments below.

Published on: Dec 3, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.