If I were in charge

As e-commerce reaches its 10-year anniversary, it’s an interesting time to reflect on what we have learned. According to ComScore Networks, holiday 2004 Internet sales were $15.8 billion, up 29% from 2003. Clearly merchants have learned how to effectively sell online. Products are delivered, customers are satisfied, and subtle improvements and innovations in merchandising and customer service tactics set the tone for a more mature channel. Radical changes and innovation are no longer paramount; a focus on execution and customer satisfaction is the order of the day.

The world of Web selling has shifted from an acquisition mode to one of retention. Consumers have upped the ante, and merchants must deliver a consistent yet engaging and appropriate Web experience. Shoppers now expect a personalized experience that understands their interests and past shopping behaviors and uses that understanding to anticipate their upcoming needs.

Regardless of today’s reality, I dream about the possibilities and potential of what multichannel could be. Because shopping is personal, I will start with 10 of my own e-commerce wishes for the year.

  1. Since most shopping online begins and ends with search, companies will make it easy for me to find what I need. Of the 100 consumer sites that my company, The E-tailing Group, visited for our fourth-quarter 2004 Mystery Shopping Survey, 95% offered onsite keyword search. But of that 95%, only 28% had some sort of advanced search function — one that enabled the addition of descriptive terms to modify the basic search, for instance.

    Those sites with only a bare-bones search function should make honing their onsite search capabilities a primary goal. For the more advanced i.merchants, the next step is to merchandise search results that give the customers what they want while highlighting best-sellers and feature products based on internal business rules.

  2. Merchants will deliver on the consumer’s real vision of cross-channel conveniences. My needs are driven by convenience, time savings, and flexibility, and I expect the merchant to be able to accommodate them. While some merchants are testing in-store pickup and more are testing in-store returns, as an industry we’re in the early stages of offering true cross-channel convenience.

    To fulfill e-commerce’s promise of convenience, merchants should allow me to pick up any item I order online at the nearest store that same day. They should also make sure that items, especially those promoted via e-mail or a Sunday newspaper insert, are available across all channels. To make the Web more attractive to catalog shoppers, they’d do well to promote the catalog quick order function prominently on the home page. The same goes for the “shop the catalog” function, which offers a virtual version of an entire catalog, spread by spread. This is particularly appealing to shoppers like me who toss the print catalog after browsing but remember where specific items appeared in the book. Both of these services have the added function of encouraging phone or mail customers to place their orders via the cheaper online channel — not by offering them financial incentives but by meeting their lifestyle needs.

  3. All gifting will reach the standard set by a few best-in-class merchants. Gift giving has never been better online. Shoppers can now select from well-stocked gift centers, even among merchants where gifting is not core to their business. Nonetheless, there’s still a strong divide between sites that excel and sites that are merely average.

    To capture a greater share of the gift-giving audience, merchants should ensure that all gift certificates are available in both paper and electronic versions and that they are redeemable in all channels. And to gain the business of those with lengthy shopping lists, offering the ability to ship to multiple addresses within a single experience is a must.

    At least two other gifting opportunities exist for a significant number of merchants. Gift reminder services or e-mail reminders of past purchases can trigger early holiday sales. And developing a corporate gift business can open up an entire new universe of buyers.

  4. I’ll see more innovative promotions, such as gift with purchase, that will encourage me to sign up for sales alerts — and maybe even persuade me to buy more when I shop. Eighty-five percent of the Websites visited offered sales and specials — no surprises there. But only 9% had limited-hour specials, such as one-day-only, four-hour “lunchtime” sales. Offering such specials to shoppers who opt in to your e-mail program — and letting shoppers know that these specials are a benefit of opting in — should boost your e-mail file considerably.

  5. Websites will provide me comprehensive product information, since I can’t touch and feel the goods. Thanks to features such as shop by outfit, zoom, and alternative views, merchants have made great strides in this area. And because of ever-improving technology, even more innovation looms on the horizon. The Web will always challenge merchants to employ tactics that more effectively sell product, reinforcing the potential of these tools to increase customer confidence and conversion while limiting return rates.

    Of course, you don’t want to add features willy-nilly if they won’t help boost sales, loyalty, or customer conversion rates. But the ability to zoom in on a photograph should be all but universal, with alternative views a valuable add-on. Those selling home decor should consider offering room visualizations, while a “shop by outfit” feature is vital for apparel merchants.

  6. Websites will continually surprise me with tools or tactics that spur me to shop. Only 64% of the sites visited offered a “what’s new” product section. For shame! “What’s new” is what selling should be about!

    If brands are core to your selling proposition, bolster their presence and reinforce their marketing message by offering brand boutiques on your site. If you handle significant repeat traffic, providing a window to recently viewed items can be an excellent tool with strong conversion opportunities.

  7. I will never be confused regarding what’s actually in my shopping cart, nor will a Website kick me out of a cart I’ve completed or make me feel at all uncertain as to whether my order went through. The shopping cart has been an area of emphasis for the past few years, so now it’s more about merchandising than execution for most marketers. Ninety-two percent of the Websites visited offered shipping status information, for instance, while 79% provided real-time inventory.

    But there are still plenty of opportunities to make checking out more efficient. Limit the checkout process to five clicks whenever possible; offer “one-click settings” so that repeat customers don’t have to keep reentering basic background data; don’t wait until the customer is checking out to show that an item is backordered.

  8. I can buy anything available anywhere in the world and ship it at a reasonable rate to friends around the world. Although it’s part of the World Wide Web, e-commerce does not excel when it comes to serving the global marketplace. Only 17% of the sites surveyed offered the ability to shop in a language other than English; only 31% offered international shipping beyond Canada and Japan. As merchants become settled and sophisticated in the routines of selling online, the international market will be the opportunity they will wish to pursue. At the very least, you should consider — if your demographics warrant it — offering a Spanish-language version of your site.

  9. Shopping online will be more fun. Fun is a relative concept. Sometimes merely accomplishing a task quickly is fun. But you can’t go wrong in trying to visually improve either the navigation or the overall experience of your site to engage the next wave of the unconverted. Even simple icons can make a difference in navigating a site. This is where the imagination must reach the furthest and where the pocketbook may become an issue, but where innovative merchants should be most aggressive. These are the elements that truly affect the shopping experience and have lasting value in the mind of the consumer.

  10. All of my Web wishes will come true. Better still, I will be granted another 10 wishes next year.

Lauren Freedman is president of Chicago-based The E-tailing Group, a consultancy for multichannel merchants. She is also the author of It’s Just Shopping, a primer on the past, present, and future of selling online.

Cross-channel services online
4Q 04 4Q 03
Catalog request 85%* 90%*
“Shop the catalog” 66%* 40%*
Catalog quick order 66%* 81%*
Retail locator 99%* 97%*
Outlet locator 62%* 79%*
Store pickup 13%* 14%*
Store returns 72%* 72%*
Store events 36%* 32%*
“As advertised” section 27% 20%
Print/weekly circular 18% 19%
Gifting service
4Q 04 4Q 03
Gift center 75% 71%
Gift suggestions 79% 71%
Corporate gifts/program 41% 31%
Gift registry 22% 20%
Gift certificates/cards 86% 77%
Gift message available 69% 62%
Offer gift wrap/box 55% 50%
E-gift announcements 12% n/a
Ship at later date 7% n/a
Multiple ship-to addresses 38% n/a

Source: The E-Tailing Group 4Q04 Mystery Shopping Note: *based on a subset of merchants with relevant channels

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