E-Commerce: The era of `dynamic’ Web merchandising

The concept of merchandising on the Internet is no different from merchandising for your print catalog or store. It’s all about providing the right product and effectively promoting the offer to your customers. But technologies of the Internet allow for “dynamic merchandising,” or the ability to create real-time messages, offers, and product recommendations targeted to individual online customers. These techniques are changing how customers browse the Web and buy goods online. Let’s look at how Web technologies manifest themselves in e-commerce.

Splash page The page before the home page, the splash page, is your first opportunity to communicate a special deal, featured product, branding message, or just a feeling. The splash page stays on the screen only for seconds, so use a short, simple message and clear imagery. You might also create a library of splash pages and program your site to rotate them so that each time the user returns to your site, it displays a different splash page.

Dynamic home page Your home page is your primary merchandising area, so I highly recommend that you dedicate a portion of it to selling products. Many e-merchants use kickers to feature special products. Kickers are like small ads integrated seamlessly around the page. To get more bang out of the limited space, you might try rotational kickers, which change each time the user comes back to the page.

Gateway pages Gateway pages help guide the user through the Web shopping experience. Like a home page for each category or section of the site, gateway pages can be used to introduce the user to specific products, communicate certain brand messages, and lead users to areas of content, such as “how to” or “frequently asked questions” sections.

Ad boxes Although traditional banner ads have become overused, it’s still a good idea to have a specific area for advertising within your site. I recommend using only ad boxes – small areas designed into the interface of the site reserved for messaging, so that you can “talk” to your customer during the shopping process.

Ad boxes should feature product offers or content for house ads. Since the ad box should always be in the same spot throughout the site, the user learns to seek it out when appropriate. But make sure that your ad boxes are unobtrusive and provide valuable information to the user. Also, you should never allow the user to link out to a commerce site – it simply distracts them from making a purchase.

Dynamic site messaging This technology lets you customize all types of messaging throughout your site to specific users. Let’s say that you want to offer expedited delivery to your preferred customers, but you don’t want other customers to see the offer. Dynamic site messaging would simply pick up the customer identification that is tagged to a specific group, such as preferred customers, and that triggers the appropriate messaging on the site. Your Website writes the customer ID to a cookie on the user’s computer. When the user enters the site, the system reads the ID and retrieves the entire customer record from the database. If no ID exists, you can assume it is a new user and message him or her accordingly.

Cross-selling/upselling Now a basic function of most e-commerce sites, cross-selling allows you to present alternative or related products on a product page to stimulate the customer to buy more items. To make this technology more dynamic, you can select the cross-sells presented based on the type of customer. Let’s say you have a customer who typically spends a good sum of money on your site. Using cookies to track the user, you might select different types of cross-sells based on the customer’s profile and buying habits. This is also known as collaborative filtering.

Value-added content With some products, the best way to merchandise is to educate the consumer or provide some sort of value-added content. For example, providing recipes on a site that sells gourmet cooking products can help sell the tools or ingredients needed in the recipes.

The deal machine

Most Internet shoppers (like most shoppers in general) love to get a great deal, and technologies such as digital coupons can help you create dynamic deals on your Website. Digital coupons allow you to provide discounts, free gifts, free shipping, and other offers on your site, which can be triggered by a referral link on another site, by date, or by a specific offer code. For example, if a user comes in from a specific referral link site, a system trigger will notify your Website to serve up a specific deal to that user. Some e-commerce programs come with a built-in feature for digital couponing. If your system does not have this feature, implementing digital coupons requires building couponing software into your front-end e-commerce program.

Digital coupons work like this: Say you created a strategic relationship with another site to drive traffic to your site. Within that marketing campaign, anyone who clicks over from that site to your site receives 10% off his or her purchase. Once the user clicks over during that session, the digital coupon is picked up and carried throughout the shopping experience so that the discount is automatically calculated when the user checks out. Each product page can also display a special pricing message just for that user during that specific session.

Digital coupons can also be set up to trigger messages on the home page and other important sections of your Website. For example, the messages about free shipping offers or special pricing appear only for that specific user coming in to the site from an outside link containing the special offer. You can also use digital coupons for special one-day or even two-hour sales, and other promotions that apply to all customers. It’s as easy as making one entry into an administration screen, and special offers can be added or deleted from your Website in a matter of seconds.

If you want to enhance the effectiveness of any e-mail campaign, simply add a digital coupon with a special offer. If you have the digital couponing software active on your site, all you need to do is add a special HTML link into the body of the e-mail. Once the customer clicks on the link from the e-mail message, your site will be displayed, and the digital coupon will be activated. Better yet, you can segment your campaign into specific targets and generate a separate digital coupon for each user, which makes the coupons more relevant.

Live human interaction

Most people thought the Internet was going to take humans out of the selling process. But live human interaction remains an important element in merchandising and selling goods. Thanks to new technology, customers can now interact with service reps online in several ways. First, the service rep and the customer can “talk” live via a chat window, in which each user types in his or her responses. Another form of interactive communication is called voiceover Internet protocol (IP), in which the rep and the customer can speak as if they were on the telephone, but the conversation is transmitted over the Internet.

In this case, the catalog service rep can make suggestions live to the customer while walking him or her through the site. And with the use of a DataWake, a feature on Acuity’s Web Center product that uses server logs rather than cookies, the rep can actually see every spot the user has visited on the site. The rep can even take control of the customer’s computer screen and visually show different merchandise, or help the user fill out the order form or use other tools on the site. Prices for this interactive technology range from $10,000 to several hundred thousand dollars.

The merchandising opportunities here are endless. For example, a rep could ask the user several questions about his or her fashion needs. Based on the response, the rep could then assemble a live online fashion show customized for that specific user, displaying all of the products recommended.

As you can see, technology can help turn your Website into a powerful merchandising machine that creates personalized selling opportunities at every level. There is no question that dynamic merchandising techniques for the Web can not only increase your bottom line, but will also provide your online customers with a more pleasant and productive shopping experience.