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Guest comment: Converting the ‘web browsers’

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by Geoff Brash

There is a received wisdom among retailers that, when it comes to mapping website hits against conversions, there is a certain percentage of visitors that simply won’t translate into sales. It may be tempting to write these visitors off as a lost opportunity, but – in much the same way people may look around shops before they buy an item – there is growing evidence that they often convert elsewhere.

Terry Lundgren, Macy’s CEO, cited these ‘web browsers’ at a recent conference, and suggested that the web is driving sales not only online but also in-store. He estimates that, for every $1 transacted online, $5.87 of revenue is influenced by the website and captured in his stores.

However, this is something that is often overlooked when it comes to retailing online. Our research suggests that consumers using the web are becoming increasingly savvy, and those who buy expensive products are spending more time ‘researching’ products before they buy – whether on or off-line – which may account for some of the un-converted traffic that retailers are experiencing on their sites.

The fact that nearly everyone these days is using the web to research products prior to purchasing is a key issue for the retail industry, and adds yet another level of complexity to the already well documented issue of ‘conversion attribution’ – or how to assign credit based on the multiple influences on your conversion activity. It was also a subject very much on the agenda at the Gilbane Conference in San Francisco last month. In the session, ‘Findability: Crafting Your Site to Drive Traffic and Improve Conversions,’ IDC analyst Hadley Reynolds identified that a huge share of product purchases are influenced by web research, and that this share is growing.

But, these complexities aside, it is a simple fact of life that not every visitor to your website is going to convert, especially during their first visit, and for the people beginning their exploration, i.e. research stage or window-shoppers, it is important to have a site with a good user experience, offering useful background educational information, in order to keep them coming back. The one or two per cent conversion rate among site visitors is similar to the conversion rates people get from traditional direct marketing, so a site which satisfies visitors at various stages of a considered purchase cycle can help you earn the eventual sale and see an even higher conversion rate.

Online retailers already spend a significant amount of money for systems that gather valuable data about customers and their purchases – but often this data remains siloed in disparate systems, without being used to really understand and react to customer behaviour online. For example, according to our recent survey of 600 retailers, almost half of the businesses surveyed (45 per cent) were missing the opportunity to further improve the user experience by not integrating all of the elements of their online data collection. The same survey showed that 95 per cent of e-commerce businesses are using analytics on their sites to track conversions and better understand their online audience, yet 63 per cent of these same businesses are not confident the analytics are accurate.

However, smart retailers are already realising the power of integrating data across more applications to facilitate more personalised marketing efforts, with the goal of strengthening brand visibility and loyalty, and improving the customer experience. In doing so, they can put more targeted messages in front of customers, increasing their chances of converting these ‘window-shoppers’ either on their website or in store, perhaps using integrated marketing techniques to draw customers towards their outlet rather than that of a rival to make their purchase.

One key thing for retailers to bear in mind is that customers will often visit a website on a mission to find specific items, sometimes looking to compare prices. Whatever their motivation it pays not to distract them from that sale with unnecessary information, rather just let them search and find. Research from MarketingSherpa shows that almost half (43 per cent) of visitors to a website go immediately to the search function and if browsers can’t find what they want quickly, they won’t spend time looking around. In many ways, site navigation is the ‘window shopping of the web’, and as such customers need to find it easy to click through the many different categories of products available on a given site.

Take a fashion retailer for example. Their refinement options (or facets) could include, gender, age, types of clothing (trousers, suits, shirts, skirts), brands, colours, sizes, price, sales, accessories…etc. When someone types in a keyword or phrase in the search box, the search results should be shown in a way that makes it easy for the customer to review and refine results, and ultimately select the item(s) they’re looking for.

By melding search data with merchandising techniques, also known as searchandising, retailers can deliver search results that are most likely to lead to sales and use customers’ individual search activity as a way to merchandise specific products. In addition to getting customers to the items they want as quickly as possible, retailers can cross-sell or up-sell other items that are likely to interest them, in much the same way as high-street retailers may put matching shoes next to a party dress.

One SLI Systems customer,, the UK’s largest independent online diamond jewellery retailer, has found that people using the faceted navigation spend more time on its site and look at more things, as they are able to browse in much the same way as they would in a high street jewellery shop – looking at things in a similar price range or with the same stone. The Diamond Store has discovered that it doesn’t matter whether visitors know the correct terms for what they want – as long they know their budget or what they’d like the jewellery to be made of, they are able to find it easily.

Of course, if the shopper is simply shopping around for the cheapest deal, then the likelihood of converting them to a sale is decreased – unless of course you offer the cheapest deal. But in cases where price difference is negligible, or is not the only factor, then customer experience is almost always what counts. Providing a consistently positive experience across all sales channels will strengthen the value of your brand in the mind of the undecided web browser, increasing your chances of converting them into a customer.

Geoff Brash is VP of Marketing, SLI Systems

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