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Focus on the detail

Amid the ever-widening choice offered by the internet, successful merchandisers help customers focus on the items they’re most likely to buy

When retailers’ internet ranges run into hundreds or thousands of products, it’s easy for browsers to get distracted or even lost among the items competing for their attention. The challenge for merchandisers is to show visitors the items most likely to fit the bill before these potential customers lose interest and move on. The latest digital merchandising technologies have a role to play in helping customers arrive speedily at the item that meets their needs.

“Online customers have high expectations and want products in front of them as quickly as possible”

“It’s about relevancy, about a rich customer experience,” says Ian McCaig, CMO of intelligent data specialists Qubit. “It’s using data in a way that’s making the experience useful and helpful.” And that’s a task that starts even before a browsing shopper reaches the website.

Get results from search

Since shoppers often know what they want to buy, but not where to buy it, retailers must reach out to them beyond the company website. One place where retailers must be present is in the results offered by search engines to shoppers’ enquiries. Through search engine optimisation (SEO), companies can rank highly in natural search results, while effective bidding will improve the company’s position in pay-per-click.

But this in itself is a tall order. A retailer selling hundreds or thousands of products will have even more relevant keywords to consider. Warren Cowan, chief executive of SEO specialist OneHydra , says that retailers must analyse and optimise user searches, giving more prominence to those that make them the most money. He points out that keywords change quickly, depending on the season, trends and stock lines. “What’s popular today will not be popular in three, six or even nine months time,” he says. “It’s very easy to miss the boat when it should be used as a crucial trading tool to define strategy. SEO changes should be adaptable and have the ability to move in real time; anything other than that is a missed opportunity.”

Cowan says retailers should always evaluate the SEO benefits when choosing ecommerce technology. Strategies to optimise site accessibility – such as using plugins that rewrite and clean-up URLs, or that give more page-level control of tags – can help. But, he argues, success is also dependent on implementation: here specialist SEO agencies or consultants have a part to play. Meanwhile, giving marketing and trading teams direct control of SEO helps to make this part of the business faster and more responsive. He argues that most ecommerce platforms “do not completely close the loop on SEO”, and says specialist platforms that can identify customer keyword trends, recognising and responding to opportunities as they emerge, should be considered.

Show relevant products

The need for effective search continues once the shopper has reached the website itself. Landing pages can be created to show visitors arriving from search the relevant goods they were looking for. Other profitable approaches, says Marcus Law, marketing manager EMEA at search specialist SLI Systems , include making the search box stand out and ensuring that in-site searches yield relevant products, and fast.

“Online customers have high expectations and want products in front of them as quickly as possible,” he says. “If retailers are not enabling this, they’re not meeting expectations, let alone exceeding them.” He also argues that technology that’s available as software-as-a-service or through the cloud enables retailers to integrate it into the ecommerce platform quickly, giving immediate results, while also allowing for ongoing customisation and modification.

Speaking from experience

Getting SEO right

“SEO (search engine optimisation) is so important to get right. If it is not a core function of the technology it is unlikely to secure market share.”

Warren Cowan, chief executive, OneHydra

Different approaches

“You might find certain merchandising approaches like offers, or pieces of content, actually resonate better with certain groups. That means you have to treat those users differently if you want to give them the best experience and the highest probability of converting at the end of their user journey.”

Ian McCaig, CMO, Qubit

Things to ask

“The key questions to ask of a potential supplier include, can this tool help me realise my merchandising vision, is this tool easy enough to use so that I can interact with it myself and not rely on specialist technical knowledge, and will this tool deliver additional revenue and will I see a decent ROI?”

Mark Turner, chief commercial officer, Attraqt

Relevance, however, can go beyond the most accurate search results. For retailer and consumer alike, it can also be about showing the products that are most seasonal, or even most popular. Furniture retailer DFS , for example, recorded a 60 per cent increase in product page conversion rates after it used Amplience’s Adaptive Media Platform to promote best-selling or trending products on its online and mobile websites automatically over Christmas 2013 and in the January 2014 sales period.

Likewise, current climatic conditions can be an important factor in what customers decide to buy. Qubit says its focus on visitor, rather than page, analytics has helped it gain greater insights into the user in recent years. “We’re doing a lot of work with customers around weather,” says Qubit’s McCaig. “With Burton , they basically personalise a lot of the content that’s delivered based on what the content is like outside. If it’s raining they’ll present you with the latest line of macs. If it’s sunny, t-shirts. Smart merchandising techniques like that have had double digit results – just like shops used to do, putting umbrellas to the front of the store when it’s raining.”

He also points to geolocation as another important factor, citing work with Arcadia for Topshop as it launches in new North American cities. “When someone comes in from Chicago or LA, they get a very different experience,” he says. “[Arcadia] want to communicate the new store opening, something around that particular catchment area. It’s really starting to bring data together, the view of the customer, enriched with data sets to create a richer experience.”

Explain the product

Once shoppers have found the range of products they’re looking for, they focus on the detail to rule purchases out or in. Product merchandising, then, must give the customer all the information they need if they are to buy. For retailers, that starts with showing clear images of each item they sell. Mo Syed, head of UX at rich media and merchandising specialist Amplience, says that for shoppers, the use of varied high quality images as well as zoom and spin functions all help to “remove a lot of the ambiguity over what they’re buying,” making it more likely they will buy. He adds: “Aspirational products in particular have more detailing and are bought for their premium quality. Customers need to see that and can’t just imagine it.” When customers better understand the product and what they’re getting, they’re also less likely to return it, argues Syed. He says it’s also important that images are used in a way that’s relevant for the device that’s used to access the website. He detects a merchandising trend that sees designers adapt layouts and designs to mobile and smartphones, prioritising the product media, whether images or video, by giving them more space in proportion to product copy, buttons and other assets.

Smart merchandising can communicate much more about a product than what it looks like and, from the product description, its dimensions and key features

Smart merchandising can communicate much more about a product than what it looks like and, from the product description, its dimensions and key features. Customers can also automatically be shown where it is stocked – and thus whether it’s available to be collected from a local shop – as well as gauging its popularity and likely availability by knowing how many products have been sold, and how many are still in stock.

Case study: How search worked for Chemist Direct

Because Chemist Direct stocks more than 20,000 products, helping its customers find the item

they need was an important part of its recent website relaunch.

The pureplay healthcare and pharmacy business, which launched in 2007, put a new emphasis on search when it remodelled its website in January 2014. The products it sells range from prescription medicines to pet food, by way of toiletries and fragrances, making it important for users to find the items that are relevant to them as quickly

as possible.

“With an online catalogue of over 20,000 products and processing between 70,000 and 80,000 transactions a month, putting the right products in front of customers as quickly as possible is critical,” says Stephen Lovell, head of product at Chemist Direct. “The only way to do it well is using intelligent search.”

The company turned to SLI Systems, introducing two solutions, Learning Search and Rich Auto Complete, to the new website. “The smart analytics behind the system,” says Lovell, “help us to control merchandising, understand what customers are seeking and see results from products we launch straightaway – all key to our growth strategy.” As well as searching product information, learning search technology also searches social content, ratings, review, blogs and videos.

In testing, Chemist Direct found that customers who used search generated 43 per cent of the total value of the site. Their conversion rate was 175 per cent higher than those who didn’t use search.

Marcus Law, head of marketing EMEA at SLI Systems, said: “Search is undoubtedly a key factor in the success of any ecommerce website. Not only does it enhance the experience for customers, the sales and conversion figures continue to demonstrate the commercial benefits of enhanced search capabilities.”

The website, for example, tells visitors searching for a hotel room how many rooms are left at a given location on a given date, while JoJo Maman Bébé shows shoppers when online stock levels are low and eBay shows how many of a similar item have been bought recently from a given seller.

Mark Turner, chief commercial officer at Attraqt, which has developed a freestyle merchandising platform, says challenges also include showing different items to different groups of shoppers. Value shoppers will want to see different items from those premium shoppers are interested in, while customers from different geographies will respond differently to merchandising strategies.

All of this information is available where joined-up platforms can understand and analyse data from a range of sources, whether those are product information, stock management or other systems, and deliver results using personalisation. Turner says retailers should ensure that non-technical staff can use a tool they’re considering buying and says that in making an investment decision retailers must assess its ability to deliver revenue that will justify the investment.

“The best technology in online merchandising is provided by specialist companies and then integrated into the client’s commerce platform,” he says. “One of the reasons is that an ecommerce platform is already carrying a huge workload around hosting, checkout, security and many other basic functions. To then add complex, real-time computations work to effect dynamic merchandising is simply asking too much of the underlying architecture.”

Certainly, as yet many ecommerce platforms have yet to have advanced merchandising capabilities such as personalisation integrated, and retailers must assess how the different options best meet their needs. Some will find enough for them in off-the-shelf platforms, while others will add on specialist solutions in order to deliver the look and feel that best works for them – and their customers.

What’s changed

Last time we approached this subject, personalisation was still emerging. Now many more retailers are successfully using data to give customers a more relevant experience. At the same time, companies are leveraging the growing use of mobile, as explored more fully in the customer engagement feature in this report, to deliver content and products in the most relevant format.

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