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Guest comment: A shop for one and all

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by Terry Hunter

By 2011, spending online is set to double. That will equate to around £430 for every adult in the UK ( So it’s crucial that retailers and brands capitalise on their e-commerce offerings, if they are to engage consumers and reap the rewards of predicted uplifts in sales.

In the UK alone, has reported broadband users spend an average of 30 hours a week online. But it’s not only more time that’s being spent on the internet. According to Mintel, £17.8 billion was spent online in the past year. Ninety per cent of those with an internet connection bought on a retail or brand e-commerce site.

For most bricks and mortar retailers, the layout of their store is instrumental in aiding customers in their purchasing decisions and encouraging ‘up-sell’ and minimise reserve. However, although the approach to e-commerce should be no different, very few brands have mastered virtual shop flows which mirror their offline counterparts.

Understandably, there is a substantial difference between the on and offline approach to retail. Most significant is the access online retailers have to intricate consumer data, which gives them the potential to understand customers far better than their in-store equivalents.

The use of data has always been at the heart of online shop design and user experience. By understanding their customers, brands can translate their consumers’ individual needs into personas, allowing them to empathise and care about the end-user experience. Personas summarise the characteristics, needs, motivations and environment of typical users. Using this information, e-commerce providers can develop customer journeys for each specific persona which encompass online as well as offline brand interactions.

Subsequently, e-commerce providers are perfectly placed to create successful retail platform based on personalisation. Inevitably there will be a broad scope of people interacting with each individual brand online. Therefore, providers must develop ‘primary personas’ based on those consumers’ needs that must be met above all others. It is these personas that supply retailers with test cases that deliver a desired result for the complete breadth and depth of use/interaction contexts without having to create an infinite amount of user journeys.

This approach is far more effective than simply segmenting shoppers based on their demographics as it allows brands to tailor their online shop floor in line with specific customer shopping occasions. It is by offering this personal connection that retailers will encourage purchases, repeat visits to the site, increase in spend with that brand and in the long run brand advocacy.

Although it is not the most sophisticated approach, segmenting customers on a basic demographic level can create a personalised shop floor experience for each person that logs into their site. For fashion brands especially, creating an individual approach to the online shop floor experience is a more manageable task. For example ASOS, an online-only retailer that targets both sexes is in a prime position to do just this. For every user that logs in, the brand has the ability to provide a homepage suited to their gender, age and occupation. For 18-year-old females, the site could offer clearly laid out routes to evening wear and for corporate businessmen the navigation could be orientated towards suits and shirts. By analysing customers’ purchasing decisions, ASOS can also suggest suitable accompanying options – for example if a man selects a pair of jeans, the site could provide a choice of matching shirts.

Personalising the shop floor experience on an e-commerce site can be far easier than in store. For a brand like Asda, moving the shop floor to suit each customer segment that visits the store is simply not feasible. Online, however, the necessary tools and information are available to initiate the process smoothly.

For supermarket brands, basket recognition is an essential part of their e-commerce sites, as much as it is central to their in-store offering. It is this access to consumer habits that provides a rich source of data which can power a personalised shopping experience. Most households will carry out a regular shop consisting of similar products and repeat purchases, so if a grocery retailer like Asda remembers the last basket entry it can make the procedure far simpler and less time consuming for the returning customer.

Homepages can be tailored to fit each individual, with product suggestions in line with previous shops and relevant offers aligned to certain shopping times – for instance money off washing powder at the beginning of each month. By analysing consumer activity and movement around the site, Asda can also tailor its shop flow to suit each individual’s navigational habits and also open new areas of the site that are rarely visited.

However, brands do not need to rely on customer data to tailor the online experience to the needs of their customers. For example, the emergence of the swine flu pandemic last summer meant there was a huge surge in consumers investing in antibacterial hand gels and anti-viral drugs. As consumer demands changed in line with the virus, Boots was in a prime situation to tailor its site to the needs of the public. It could provide a focus for these products on its landing page and create clear direction to offers and product suggestions to suit the obvious trends in the pharmaceutical market at that time.

At the heart of successful web platforms is an ability to respond and react swiftly to changing consumer demand. For most brands, activity will be focussed on developing and promoting new products to meet these trends but many still operate inflexible platforms that mean alterations can take a long time to create and fully implement. Understandably, as e-commerce providers offer more, consumers now expect more and as such they are not willing to wait around for retailers to react to their changing demands and trends in the mass market. Therefore, a personalised approach can in fact improve shopping basket value and encourage consumers to return.

It is relatively easy to identify those retailers who significantly invest in their e-commerce offering. These are the brands that are utilising the available data to provide an online shop floor that is not only attractive on a visual level, but finely tuned to meet the demands posed by their customers. If an e-commerce solution offers customers with a straightforward navigation system and the products that meet their changing needs, it is already in good stead.

Understandably, customers are more likely to return to a site and spend more with a brand that has their interests in mind and supports their purchasing decisions with suggestions and advice. Therefore, retailers that incorporate customer data into the design and style of their sites accordingly will reap the benefits of increased sales and in fact they could also see further external investment from advertisers seeking a good home for targeted promotion.

Critically, a data-driven shop experience allows retailers to bring the ultimate personal shopping experience to life. In the future, as technology continually develops it is likely that we will reach a state of utopia in retail. By this, it is likely that retailers will develop a means of providing each individual consumer with their own personalised store, which will have a shop floor with product placement and offers all specifically tailored to only their needs each time they log in.

• Terry Hunter is managing director at 2020 Technology.

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