Ecommerce Merchandising in a Minefield

merchandising illustration

Close your eyes and picture your favorite ecommerce site. Think of how you feel as the home page loads, and the copy, photography and page layout tell product and brand stories. How each click deeper into the site reveals a new area to explore and ultimately, reinforces your decision to purchase. That feeling you just experienced is brought to you by ecommerce merchandising.

Creating this feeling is hard enough in normal times but in 2020, the challenge is epic. Ecommerce merchandisers have had to digitally tiptoe like never before in the last nine months. “Merchandising in a minefield” is their new reality when photography can be perceived by some shoppers as discriminatory and a misstep in messaging can not only seem tone deaf but also lead to a brand reputation crisis, in minutes.

Until about March, there wasn’t as much attention on the digital shelf, but with the meteoric rise in ecommerce since, consumer scrutiny is at an all-time high. Before, the only job of an ecommerce merchandiser was to show consumers what they came for and inspire them to buy. Now, that role is incrementally more complex, reconciling local vs. global points of view on everything from masks to models, deciding what to feature when the product mix may not be exactly what was planned for, and dealing with the new realities of remote gift-giving this holiday season.

Ecommerce merchandising teams will handle all this with the same style and grace they normally do, but we wanted to offer a few suggestions to keep in mind for this holiday season.

Think Global

Retailers’ stores are the touchpoint with their local community. They frequently take on the feeling, values and merchandise of the local customer. But ecommerce sites are global. Merchandising online is a more delicate balancing act – you have to avoid overly regionalized points of view, especially if they could clash with people who may think or feel differently.

A few “minefield moments” many merchandisers are stressing over this year involve whether or how to factor coronavirus into their content, making sure all customers can see themselves in the products, and how best to merchandise against the largest ecommerce marketplaces.

We’ve all had discussions on whether to mask models. If we don’t, will we look irresponsible? If we do, will people consider us to be overreacting or making a political statement? Should we photograph groups of families and/or friends together celebrating?

There’s no single answer but we recommend that unless your brand is trying to make a bold statement for the use of masks, it’s not necessary. Most people realize that photography and copy are meant to showcase products and tell a brand story, not act as social commentary. If you want to make a statement about a social or political event that seems relevant, then by means do so, but keep it separate from your main merchandising pages other than the home page.

Speaking of social and political issues, all brands need to be vigilant about national and global events that directly impact your customer base, and be prepared to weigh in. According to a Social Sprout study, 70% of U.S. consumers think it’s important for a brand to take a position on social and political issues. While this commentary is driven by marketing, PR and the brand itself, the position the company takes should factor in your merchandising space. For example, if you’re going to promote sustainability efforts, don’t merchandise it right next to your promotion for free two-day shipping on orders over $50.

Also, remember that your site competes for attention with every other ecommerce brand and marketplace with similar products, including Amazon, Walmart,, and Alibaba. Instead of competing on price, consider promotions and discounts on bundles that make the comparison harder, and seem to offer customers more value.

Finally, your customers must see themselves in your products. Meaning, see people with similar colored skin, body types and style. If you feel you need a broader range of imagery featuring different styles, regions, or greater cultural or racial diversity, consider recruiting social media influencers whose imagery can be integrated with existing product shots, so you have good representation. If you don’t have the bandwidth or know-how for this, an agency or platform vendor can help find influencers and negotiate deals so your team stays focused on holiday activities.

Plan for Product Shortages

Another big minefield moment to plan for in ecommerce merchandising is what to feature when popular products run low.

Start planning now for how your merchandising mix will change once best-selling products are in limited supply. Nothing angers consumers more than clicking through on a featured item only to find it sold out. Create a transition strategy that integrates new sets of products with currently featured ones to make the move feel more natural. Plan when to roll out new features based on predetermined inventory levels, putting daily reporting and sales estimates in place so you’re not caught by surprise.

In the same vein, gift cards are sure to be big sellers this year due to shipping concerns and people struggling to find that perfect gift. But for those who find gift cards too impersonal, it’s a great opportunity to expand their definition.

Promoting a virtual shopping experience or consultation as a gift can add that extra touch of personalization – especially if it’s something you can do together. Offering consultations can work from stylists for fashion and beauty brands to training tips for sporting goods retailers. Alternatively, offering a scheduled and exclusive in-store shopping experience where a more conservative friend or family member feels safe is a win, too. And for brands, it’s a way to get people back into stores again and making impulse purchases.

In an uncertain environment like this, the best advice for ecommerce merchandising comes in the form of an old motto of Norman Vincent Peale who said, “plan your work, and work your plan.”

Chris Hogue is Head of Strategy and Product at LiveArea

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