Merchandising the Web way

Oct 01, 2008 9:30 PM  By

Compared to leisurely perusing a print catalog, the Web is in many ways like “drive-through shopping.” Catalogs allow customers to peruse a merchant’s assortment; and they engage the reader with visual imagery via a portable delivery mechanism. But our research indicates that Web shoppers are interested in time savings and convenience.

During the past 10 years, the Web has proven to innovate and excel in ways most consumers and experts would not have anticipated. And much of these efforts have come as a result of exemplary merchandising.

Early on the Web could be considered a copycatting medium, taking the best of print and the power of retail merchandising to transition shoppers to a new kind of shopping. Cross-channel tactics included top sellers, showcasing new product and leveraging quick-shop capabilities that allowed shoppers to easily enter a catalog SKU number for immediate ordering and gratification.

The Web today delivers efficiency through search and sort, as “surgical shopping” is often the customer’s modus operandi. Merchandising delivers a more engaging browsing experience, compensating for the lack of a tactile component consumers have in a retail environment.

The chart “Essential Web features” (below left) looks at 50 merchandising tactics and technologies and how 200 merchants who participated in The E-tailing Group’s Annual Merchant Survey ranked these features on their ability to deliver ROI.

Let’s take a closer look at some of these features to see how Web merchandising has clearly differentiated itself from print catalog marketing.

  1. Search is number-one

    Today’s consumer often skips conventional navigation, preferring to use onsite search to quickly locate a product of interest — something catalogers clearly have no ability to address. Search tactics can be as simple as entering a keyword or descriptive phrase.

    Extending the experience may mean offering an advanced search. For example, visitors to home products merchant Solutions can access the site’s product finder searching by category, problem/activity, product type or price, or by choosing to look at a combination of these attributes.

    From there, delivering a robust results page that allows for meaningful sorts further assists in that search effort. Showcasing popular products or new additions can also elevate the consumer experience.

  2. Picture perfect

    One of the biggest challenges merchants had to overcome when enabling Web shopping was giving customers a tactile sense of the product. While well-executed catalog photography inspires and encourages users to make a print purchase, initially the Web’s thumbnail-orientation and uninspiring photography fell flat from a sensory perspective.

    Many merchants today have harnessed the power of rich media to evolve the product experience. This includes an almost universal adoption of zoom, an extensive use of alternative views in categories that demand detailed product knowledge, as well as product demonstrations.

    From a category point of view, tools that also foster product visualization — such as shop by outfit and view in a room, along with color change — are being used by savvy merchants to better showcase their assortments.

  3. Information is power

    The Web has certainly proven to be the most important information-gathering tool of our times and with such power comes the demand for merchants to incorporate both product and category content on their sites. This is especially important for information-intensive categories such as technology, computers, sporting goods and consumer electronics.

    With 42% of shoppers indicating that they research online prior to making an in-store purchase, there are certainly cross-channel implications. Shoppers leverage the Web to arm themselves with information prior to store visits. Information today ranges from static how-to guides, glossaries and trendy tips to video content that delivers a truly experiential experience for consumers. Product comparison tools also aid shoppers in making the right selection based on their unique needs.

    The Crutchfield site (shown left) has created a destination with its Crutchfield Advisor, through which visitors can learn about popular topics, view exclusive video footage, and secure installation guides for purchased product.

  4. The customer is in control

    The notion of community was one part of the initial promise of the Web that took longer to gain traction than other areas of the online shopping experience. Despite the performance of the initial forays, user-generated content is one of the most important elements of today’s shopping experience.

    Leading the pack are customer reviews: Our mystery shopping reveals that 50% of the Web merchants surveyed are showcasing such peer content on their sites. Consumers are passionate about these efforts, as 65% always or most of the time read reviews prior to making a decision to purchase a product.

    REI’s Hobitat 4 Tent (shown below) integrates consumer reviews from its enthusiast audience. We expect more sites to embrace this content as social networking grows and merchants evolve social applications.

  5. Personalization can be powerful

    Personalization, fortunately, has moved beyond “Hello Lauren” to efforts that acknowledge and adapt based on consumer behavior. One tactic that has taken hold for both merchants and consumers is “recently viewed.” Merchants provide easy access to previously seen product, which is convenient for customers as they wade through extensive online assortments. E-tailers are rewarded, as customers often add these additional items to their shopping carts.

Shoppers want and expect more personalized online shopping experiences based on past purchases and behavior. Yet the majority of these shoppers today (88% as surveyed in our recent research) find that products suggested on a site are specifically tailored for them just “some of the time or once in a while.” Such limiting experiences highlight the potential that future personalization efforts can accomplish.

Our Mystery Shopping results firmly support such efforts, showing that product page upsells/cross-sells are found in 76% of merchants, while 79% make them available at the category page. The tactics vary by location, as these supporting stats reveal.

The top areas of focus include the all-important product page, followed by the shopping cart. E-mail messaging also extends the opportunity. These personalization efforts are not feasible in the catalog world beyond cover customization, “we miss you” messaging, and mention of the company’s closest store or a new store opening.

The Web can excel in this arena where the end results include more satisfied shoppers and increased average order values.

Last, e-mail is the communication conduit that keeps the conversation going with the customer in between catalog mailings. The dialog that is established with your customer is invaluable, and it allows you to merchandise quicker to season — which is essential to survival in today’s economic climate.

Brookstone’s shopping cart page (shown to the left) suggests upselling special offers, while promotions featuring the hardware, gifts and gadets merchant best sellers are also wisely shown.

Replenishment strategies are a third extension of personalization, and are most important in categories where frequent purchases of products is the norm — such as office supplies or pet food. Office supplies cataloger/retailer Staples does a good job with this in promoting its “easy” brand value proposition.

Expected Web evolution


Each of the elements described here parlays the power of the Web to move shopping and merchandising beyond the print catalog. Whether this means more sophisticated search or harnessing personalization to deliver a more relevant onsite experience, exemplary merchandising tactics can be seen in myriad examples across the Web.

One can only expect to see evolving examples of these efforts in the coming years as the online audience and the technology become even more sophisticated.

Lauren Freedman is president of the E-tailing Group (www.e-tailing.com), a Chicago-based online merchandising consultancy.

ESSENTIAL WEB FEATURES: Top Tactics that Work from an ROI Perspective


All 50 features in the survey in descending order as rated very to somewhat valuable
Keyword search 94%
Sales or specials 90%
Cross-sells 89%
Seasonal promotions 88%
E-mail as a merchandising vehicle 86%
Free shipping — conditional 80%
Top sellers 78%
What’s new 78%
Up-sells 75%
Alternative views 74%
Merchandised search landing pages 74%
Advanced search 73%
Promotional incentives 71%
Coupons/rebates 70%
Exclusives 67%
Customized content 65%
E-mail-a-friend 65%
Affiliate programs 64%
Zoom 62%
E-mail customer service alerts 61%
Gift center/suggestions 60%
Gift certificates/cards 58%
Search/order by catalog number 58%
Free shipping — unconditional 57%
Product ratings & reviews 57%
Alternate payment methods 52%
Multiple ship-to’s 50%
Online outlet 50%
Create your own custom/personalized products 49%
Community features 48%
Recently viewed 46%
Color change 45%
Brand boutiques 44%
Contests 44%
Shop by outfit/solution view in a room 43%
Pre-orders 43%
Product comparisons 42%
Wish lists 40%
Video 40%
Frequent buyer programs 39%
Deferred payment plans 38%
Live chat 38%
As advertised 37%
Limited hour promotions 35%
Interactive tools 34%
Gift or wedding registry 28%
3D visualization 23%
In-store product locator look-up 23%
In-store pick-up and/or returns 22%
Audio 20%
PERSONALIZED PRODUCT RECOMMENDATIONS: Ranked Very Valuable, Valuable, and Somewhat Valuable


Product page 76%
Personalized home page 75%
Category page 74%
Shopping cart 70%
Order confirmation 67%
Shipping confirmation 65%
Brand page 63%
E-mail with product recommendations specific to past purchase 62%
E-mail after purchasing a product asking for a rating and reviews 61%
Thank-you page after checkout 55%