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GUEST COMMENT How to make sure it’s the most wonderful time of the year for online retailers

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What does shopping mean to consumers today? Is it still a leisure activity, a relaxing half hour browsing catalogues or a Saturday morning wandering the aisles, punctuated every now and again by a coffee and a sticky bun?

When the announcement came that the much-beloved Argos catalogue was about to bite the dust, there was a hue and cry over bygone days of ringing toys in the hope that Santa (or parents) might get the hint. But that’s what they are – bygone. Let’s not pretend that, had the Argos catalogue enjoyed a last-minute reprieve, we’d all be faithfully thumbing its pages once more. The internet is where consumers begin and end their search for retail enlightenment, Google and Amazon their temples of worship.

Understanding how consumers search for products via these two ecommerce behemoths is even more important when it comes to retail’s holiest of days – Black Friday, Prime Day, Singles Day, Boxing Day sales and more. With an estimated £200bn squirrelled away during lockdown,analysts predict they will splurge most if not all of it on 2021 Christmas and Black Friday shopping. Often using the latter to fuel deals and savvy spending for the former, and doing most of that shopping online (54%).

Does it go without saying that people search both platforms for the best deals? Certainly, it would seem that retailers who appear high on search rankings are more likely to drive awareness and sales. However, there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes that retailers need to consider if they’re to deploy a successful holiday shopping search strategy. Try saying that without your teeth in.

First, the nuts and bolts. Can you actually handle the wonderful surge in shoppers that are headed your way? If your website or social pages are likely to be the customer’s first port of call after search, make sure it doesn’t fall over at the first sign of increased traffic.

Alternatively, look to the channels that are most likely to receive shopper interest – which channels brought you the most success in the past – Instagram (beware outages!)? Marketplaces? Understand where your shoppers go and be ready to greet them with a great, big virtual smile. Don’t forget, most are mobile these days (90% of sales on Singles Day were made on a phone) so optimise the experience to be quick and simple on the small screen.

Next, can you deliver on your promises? Make sure your channels aren’t writing cheques your supply chain can’t cash. Real time inventory updates via product information management systems save disappointment and missed deadlines. Equally, use search data to understand what the most popular lines are likely to be and don’t just go by product searches. Gifts for granny, best ways to spring clean the house on a budget are also huge clues to what customers are looking for.

Have you tried treating old customers like new ones? Just because they searched and bought from you once, doesn’t mean they don’t need to be wooed again. Use that virtual goldmine of first party data (it’s only going to get more important when the cookies crumble) to retarget previous customers and tempt them back with promotions.

Once you know you can handle the traffic, it’s time to beef up your search strategy. This means making automation and platform tools work for you.

Take Google Shopping for example. Consumer use of Google Shopping to compare and contrast products is growing ata rate of knots, with ad spend on the platform expected to grow by 68% by 2024. Competition is hotting up.

Getting your product to show high on the search rankings, in the most attractive format and at the most attractive price means doing your research. But with such a huge range of product variations to deal with, automation is the only way to make sure you can optimise at the necessary speed.

To bid on a granular SKU and search term level (generally more effective than a group bid approach because the results are more specific and actionable), sophisticated online retailers use AI and machine learning to optimise purchase intent terms.

Some smaller retailers are wary of the terms AI and machine learning, believing them to be an expensive hammer to crack what is currently quite a small nut. But even they can benefit from automation using Smart Shopping. Google will optimise search based on set terms but the only problem is retailers don’t have access to the resulting data and so can’t plot their own customer journeys for the next time. As a way to get in front of a market, drive customers to their sites and therefore the potential to collect their own first party data, however, it’s an invaluable tool.

Effective search is like doing the laundry – something you feel you can never quite keep on top of unless you have help. The good news is that help is out there in a form that suits every budget. But to get in control, you have to take the time to look at all the processes – from warehouse layout and ability of your logistics partner to deliver, to search term refinement and website testing – to make sure you have a lean, mean, search machine. 


Liam Patterson, CEO and founder at Bidnamic

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