BRIDGING THE GAP
TECHNOLOGY HELPS BRING THE RICHNESS OF IN-STORE MERCHANDISING TO THE RETAIL WEBSITE, WRITES CHLOE RIGBY
Merchandising is where ecommerce can perhaps most effectively bridge the gap between the three-dimensional experience-rich in-store shopping trip and the flat, small screens through which online shoppers make their buying choices. By giving internet shoppers confidence, retailers can make the final purchase so much more likely. And by housing their range in the unlimited space that is the internet they can showcase, and sell, more goods. Merchandising, says Andrew Fowler, UK country manager at self-learning behavioural merchandising specialists Apptus, should be at the forefront of retailers’ investment plans. “It’s very important to have a good quality platform that processes and stays up,” he says, “but when thinking about how to present relevant information to people and therefore sell more, then the merchandising strategy should be an exercise in its own right. It’s about how will I present across these different devices and different markets for the next five to six years?”
The challenge for retailers is to make smart choices from an ever-widening array of solutions in a way that allows them to display their products effectively yet profitably. Their own shopping research is all about deciding what merchandising technologies are most relevant for their business.
Max Childs, marketing director at rich media specialists Amplience, says traders should consider both how they want to reach their audience – and what that audience demands – when choosing merchandising technologies. “The very first thing,” he says, “is to establish what your customers expect of you.”
FINDING THE PRODUCT
For the website visitor with a sense of what they want to buy, the shopping journey will start with the search box, while even those who are just looking may also turn to the function at some point during their time on a retail site. Today, search can be more than a way of finding a product; it can also help to find relevant content, from videos through to customer reviews while at the same time engaging the user. Features such as auto-complete and type-ahead functions can help to make search more accurate, while learning from what’s been typed in the search box to show images of suggested products can help to take shoppers straight to the item they’re looking for. Meanwhile, those who see social content can be more likely to buy. “We’ve seen that people who watch a video and read reviews are already clued up about what it is they’re after,” says Chris Edge, head of customer success at SLI Systems. “If they’ve got some good videos, good documentation, and information that shows people who bought this before have really liked it, that all tends to help with the final purchase.” But all of that starts with an effective search function.
Once the visitor has found a product, they want to examine it. Online retailers are now well versed in the use of high quality images that can spin and zoom to enable the customer to inspect the product as closely as they might if they were looking at it in person. Showing alternative colours is key; the strategic use of video can show how the item looks on a model, while a broadening choice of virtual fitting-room solutions enables customers to see how the item might look on them, given their personal size and shape.
Showcasing products through lookbooks, product collections, carousels or campaigns helps to complete the shopping experience. Taking this up a gear to a brand experience can involve the use of editorial content such as style guides, advice on using products, favourites and recommendations, whether on the website or on dedicated mobile apps, that can be used on the move.
It’s fast becoming clear that relevance underlies the successful conversion of a browser into a buyer. Personalisation takes forward the marketer’s use of segmentation, hitherto used to show defined visitor groups the products judged most likely to be of interest to them, by adding an extra step. By overlaying that segmentation with the personal details that a retailer holds about an individual customer and their previous buying history retailers can now offer a different view of the website to different viewers. The products they’re shown will depend on factors from what they’ve previously bought to where they live, the season of the year and even the device from which they are viewing the site.
Apptus’ Fowler, says that’s particularly relevant for retailers who have several thousand potential products to show. He says the right context is becoming more important and that the dextrous use of algorithms can deliver that. “Instead of having a top-seller list,” he says, “I’ll have a top-seller list for this customer. That exposes more products to more customers, and two visitors might start to see different ranges of products. That ability to extend more products to more people equals more exposure and, in turn, better sales. Relevant products are more important and customers are now more demanding.”
Once a retailer has established the technology they’d like to use in merchandising a product range, there are decisions to be made around how to buy it. For example, is a preference for capital investment in licensed, or owned, software, paying upfront for a solution that is then free to use and can be differentiated by an in-house team of developers, or a more pay-as-you-go approach through the software as a service (SaaS) option? This route entails continuing regular payments in exchange for fully-supported technology that upgrades seamlessly to use the latest features. Since the nature of these regular payments can vary enormously, it’s important to be clear how the merchandising technologies under consideration are paid for. Some, for example, might charge based on the financial difference their solution makes to the business while others might charge a percentage of turnover. Others again take a more mechanical approach, charging for the number of products that the solution is used to display, while alternative approaches include a range of payment options, that can be tailored to meet the needs of the trader using them.
BEST OF BREED OR BUILT-IN?
Retailers will also choose between integrating one or more ‘best of breed’ solutions to their platform, or choosing a platform that comes equipped with merchandising programes. Between the two lies the merchandising platform. That brings together several merchandising solutions for integration into an overall ecommerce platform. We asked vendors in different parts of the market to highlight some of the issues to be considered when considering this question.
Roger Doddy, director at personalisation specialists Peerius, and Chris Edge of search specialists SLI Systems both point to the dedicated and focused support lying behind best-of-breed solutions. Doddy says that while many platforms will offer some recommendations technology, “what is very difficult to graft on is migrating recommendations to actual personalisation. I think the two things are quite different. Personalisation is a much more sophisticated offering these days.” Meanwhile, SLI’s Edge says that companies such as his have a singularity of purpose that more wide-ranging platforms do not. “We only have one specific product and we invest all our time and energy to make the best possible search, the best possible experience for the retailer. We’re an advocate for search.”
Max Childs, of Amplience, whose merchandising platform brings together technologies that enable the management of campaigns, images and media assets, points to the interoperability of solutions as a key purchase consideration. “You want the right solutions that will work together,” he says. “The other side of it is that the speed of integration of individual solutions can be an issue for retailers. Typically, they need to go live in a fairly short period of time.” He therefore advises retailers consider how quickly a solution can be implemented, how reliable it is and what is its guaranteed uptime. Scalability is also important. “Will the solution that you’re looking at be able to grow with you, fit where you want to be as a company in three years time, five years time or 10 years’ time? It is time-consuming and frustrating having to change suppliers and change website content delivery so if you can get the decision right early on then it makes life a lot easier for you over the long-term.”
Meanwhile, Frank Lord, VP EMEA of Oracle Retail, whose Endeca merchandising solution can stand alone or integrate with the Oracle – or another – ecommerce platform, says decisions on how to buy merchandising technologies depend largely on what the retailer is already using.
“If they’ve made a massive investment in a platform they’re otherwise happy with, whether they’ve bought themselves or have the innate intelligence to do these things, they’re likely to want to add on tools that create better personalisation or site experience. Endeca was created with that in mind. It’s agnostic to the platform and can be layered on any ecommerce platform. It creates a personalisation model and relevant results across the site irrespective of what platform you’re using. If companies have made a lot of investment they’re likely to go that way.”
Lord argues that larger companies with years of experience upgrading different technologies are more likely to consider an all-in-one platform. “Upgrades become incredibly painful if technologies are not in line,” he says. “The seamlessness of the integration comes into play here, and quite often large companies will decide they would like to have this much more integrated so they can upgrade more easily in future.”
This is also something to be considered, he argues, when looking to new and emerging technologies now and in the future.
“Companies need to be very careful when selecting because with every single investment comes responsibility of keeping up and upgrading it” he says. “They need to be sure they don’t have something that will be positive in the short term
but negative long-term, and to consider how easy it will be to upgrade as the rest of the environment grows.”
Your shop window
“If you’re an online retailer the visual representation that you deliver to your digital audience is your shop window, it is your shop shelf, and you have to get this right. It is fundamental to get the imagery right and to merchandise things in a way that’s going to be engaging. If you don’t do that, all your hard-won site visitors are going to be turned off. Alongside all the very whizzy things we see our customers doing, there is the fundamental need to provide the best, cleanest experience that you can to bring your customers through the purchase funnel.”
Max Childs, marketing director, Amplience
Scan the market
“Businesses need to understand what kind of shopping experience they need to create for the customer, convert into requirements then take a scan of the market to understand exactly what technologies might fit the need. At the same time they have to make an IT decision about how tools fit in and what that means for upgrades, growth and internal workload. Then they have to, between the business and the IT, have to make an important decision on how they will proceed.”
Frank Lord, VP EMEA, Oracle Retail
Easy to integrate
“You don’t really see the platforms crafting their offering to be best in class with all of the elements that are on offer. What you are seeing is that platforms are making it very easy to integrate technology like ours with theirs.”
Roger Doddy, director, Peerius
Merchandising solutions have become ever more sophisticated over the last year. In particular, personalisation has come to the fore as a must-have technology for retailers who want to show how their goods are relevant to each and every one of the visitors exploring their site. But the basics also remain important; crisp and clear imagery is still an essential to convey the advantages of a product.