‘Tis the Season for Conversion

The standards that customers consider a given in today’s multichannel landscape — timely free shipping promotions, cross-channel pickup, in-store return policies, exemplary customer service — receive significant press throughout the year. If Christmas is your make-or-break season and your Website still falls shy of meeting industry best practices…well, you’ve got your work cut out for you. But I’m going to assume that you’ve been working year-round on the standards. So instead, let’s focus on 10 bolder ideas that can help you take advantage of the seasonal increase in traffic by converting more browsers to buyers. You should still have time to implement a few of these suggestions on your site to take advantage of the 2005 holiday rush. You can also use these ideas as the basis for 2006 initiatives to best-in-class merchandising regardless of the season.


    Customers must connect with the experience you set forth on your Website. This emotional bond initially engages them and subsequently inspires future purchases. Cosmetics merchant Sephora does an excellent job of branding through visual imagery and copy. Copy positions the site as a destination for gift-giving (“Introducing the Sephora gift registry, where beauty wishes come true”). The customer-centric attitude is reinforced with messaging that includes free shipping, free gift packaging, free samples, and free returns. In a holistic approach, Sephora features links on its home page to “What’s New,” “As Seen In” (products recently featured in magazines), and “Tips & Trends” sections to appeal to a cross-section of shoppers, from impulsive buyers to more-pensive information seekers.


    Southwestern-inspired apparel and gifts marketer Sundance Catalog uses a sophisticated look and feel to present its extensive selection of jewelry, yet it makes finding products simple. Starting with the “Jewelry Finder” link from the home page, visitors can follow a three-step process to make a choice that best suits their style and budget. First they choose a product category, from necklaces to bracelets and even one-of-a kind pieces. Next, the shoppers pick an artist and a price range; they have the additional ability to enter any keyword (which is ideally suited for stone or color requests). When results are served up, shoppers can sort the item by price or by “newness.” This ability to call attention to the newest items is a great feature for catering to repeat purchasers interested in seeing the latest and greatest. That brings us to our next tip…


    In August women’s apparel cataloger Boston Proper was using its home page to establish and promote “embellishment” — a key fall trend in the apparel world. The site’s romantic photography coupled with the merchandising allowed visitors to shop based on their individual needs. “Fall’s Top 10” suggested the season’s must-haves, while “Trend Alert” linked to vintage-inspired jackets. This kind of approach ensures that customers get the full flavor of what’s in store for the season. And “Daily Specials” are always of interest, so Boston Proper was wise to promote those prominently on the home page as well.


    Customers’ interest in doing things their way — from creating the latte of their choice at Starbucks to customizing their iPod carrying cases — is evident. Apparel marketer Polo takes customization to the next level with its Create Your Own collection, available for men, women, and even children. Initially shoppers select a Polo style (the Classic-Fit Polo vs. the Slim Custom-Fit Polo, for instance). From there they select their size (Polo smartly includes a link to a sizing chart, which should reduce the number of fit problems). Next, users select item colors, and then they can get really creative, by picking a color for the pony logo or setting up a two- or three-letter monogram. Shoppers can preview the product on the Polo model…though the site can’t guarantee that you’ll look like the model when you try on the shirt at home.


    As part of the E-tailing Group’s Annual Merchant Survey, we asked Web marketers to rank features based on how they deliver from an ROI perspective. Given the directed nature of the online consumer, it was no surprise that onsite search ranked in the top five. Hardware superstore Home Depot maximizes search by merchandising the results page. The page includes “most popular” products and highlights any relevant online clearances, both of which should spur quick action from the consumer. Home Depot has also integrated helpful information about the category for those who need simple how-to information before purchasing or who are using the Web for in-depth researching online with intent to purchase in a store. Either way the merchant wins because the strategies drive the customer to buy more quickly.


    Home furnishings merchant Design Within Reach, which promises that the “merchandise is in stock and ready to ship,” has taken great pains to provide shoppers with complete product information. With search engines driving so much traffic, product pages are often landing pages, making it essential that they be comprehensive. Design Within Reach’s product pages include detailed descriptions and the ability to zoom in on products as well as to see them in a room setting. In addition, the color change function gives a strong flavor of the way a product actually looks. Illustrations provide dimensions — helpful from a decorator and appropriateness aspect — and the material and measurement data are in-depth. Related and suggested products are certain to tempt shoppers hoping they might complete a room. All of these elements combine to foster a quicker conversion at the product-page level in a merchandise category just now hitting its stride online.


    Levenger, a marketer of “reading tools,” also has a very robust product page, with one of the most important elements being its “Recommended Accessories.” I believe this is one of the quickest ways to increase your average order size. When shopping for purses or totes, for instance, many women want to buy a coordinating wallet, so Levenger’s positioning on this page is a perfect reminder. During the past year we have found that merchants are populating product-page recommendations with greater relevancy. Eighty of the 100 sites surveyed in our Seventh Annual Mystery Shopping Study included upsells or cross-sells, with cross-sells dominating the product pages. Offering three suggestions, striving for the highest relevancy, of course, seems ideal given shoppers’ limited retention and the importance of leveraging real estate to the best of your ability.


    Positioning products in the shopping cart can add incremental sales through impulse buying. In addition to showing related products, this is a good location for gift suggestions during the holiday selling period. When shoppers at the Godiva Website complete their transaction, the chocolates merchant suggests two more products in slightly different price points and categories, hoping to convince a significant number to take them up on this offer. The shopping cart is just the beginning, as postorder opportunities (including the thank-you page and the order and shipping confirmations) with their high open rates have high visibility compared with subsequent promotional mailings. These opportunities to increase the average order or to retain a customer for another purchase can drive significant dollars to the bottom line. Just 56% of the merchants in our annual survey followed this recommendation, so there is room for you to set yourself apart by adding offers here.


    According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), three out of four Americans purchased a gift certificate last holiday season, a share that is likely to increase in 2005. You should offer both traditional paper certificates and electronic versions, giving customers the option they desire. Where possible, redemption across channels is also desirable. Once the gift certificate is on the site, integrating it and positioning it in strategic locations should deliver greater revenue. Showing a visual on the home page, as on home goods marketer Bed Bath & Beyond’s site, is just the start. Consider including views on your store locator and catalog request pages, as well as making it part of general navigation during the holidays. And finally, the gift certificate can be populated on the search results page when no results are found or as a gift idea option for those who are undecided.


    This year Forrester Research estimates that 7% of retail sales will be done online, still leaving the lion’s share to physical stores. That fact alone supports the e-mail campaign launched by general merchant J.C. Penney on Dec. 21 last year. (Yes, I referred to this in my article “Wish List” in the July issue, but it’s such a great idea that I can’t resist citing it again.) At that time, most items couldn’t be ground-shipped in time for Christmas, and consumers were feeling the pressure to finish any last-minute purchasing in-store rather than taking a chance on receiving packages too late. Penney highlighted store hours and a link to its online store locator; its gift center, wish list, and gift highlights were also front and center in this e-mail. Leveraging e-mail fosters a multichannel approach, which shows that all channels are cooperating to grow business across the brand.

Lauren Freedman is president of the Chicago-based e-commerce consultancy the E-tailing Group and the author of It’s Just Shopping.

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