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Twelve approaches that work

Retailers are bringing increasingly sophisticated tools to bear in the task of explaining and showing products to potential buyers. Alongside the latest digital and store-based technology, the basics of clear information and top-quality imagery remain a constant. Chloe Rigby outlines 12 approaches that IRUK and IREU Top500 retailers, leaders in related industries and smaller, innovative players are using in merchandising

1. Show how products might look in place…

Smart retailers put the product in context. By enabling shoppers to visualise the final effect, it’s likely not only that initial sales will be higher, but also that returns will be lower.

Topps Tiles , for example, has a web-based tile visualiser that enables browsers to lay virtual tiles in a variety of room settings to get a good idea of the final effect. Topps’ shop assistants can also use the visualiser on an in-store iPad to demonstrate different tile options to customers. It’s important to operate across channels, says the company, because both its website and its stores are heavily used by shoppers who are deciding what to buy. More than 70% of its customers, said Topps in its latest full-year results, use its website to research their purchases – while they also visit the store on “numerous” occasions.

“We believe the pureplay online market for tiles remains very small and our ability to combine our website offering with the skilled advice and convenience available through a physical store presence gives us a significant competitive advantage over any pureplay online retailer of tiles,” the retailer said.

2. …and what fashion might look like on

The changing room has long been key to fashion retailers’ success. Understanding whether clothes fit and look good when worn is at the heart of making a buying decision. No doubt that’s why the fashion industry has taken a clear lead in using technology to explain what items seen only via a screen will look like on.

Hawes & Curtis has deployed the ‘virtual’ fitting room, which uses buyers’ measurements to show what an item will look like on, while Hobbs uses Virtusize to enable customers to measure the item they’re considering buying against one they already own. More recently, Shop Direct websites, including and, have introduced Tangiblee technology that enables browsers to size up potential accessories from purses to handbags and luggage.

Tests in the Shop Direct user experience lab saw a 10% uplift in revenue among visitors who saw the sizing comparison feature from their mobile device, compared to those who did not. Shop Direct group ecommerce director Jonathan Wall has said the technology gives “our customer confidence in the actual size of items before she buys”.

3. Think smart when using images

Clear images show consumers what to expect of the products they’re buying. That can, in turn, reduce returns. In addition, images can inspire shoppers: by using strong photographs in marketing emails and enabling sharing on social media platforms such as Pinterest and Facebook, retailers can merchandise products against a pre-selected background. This enables retailers to reach beyond a home website.

Designer kitchenware brand Joseph Joseph says that images are important to its communications. “As a design-led business, our customers value the aesthetics of our household products as much as their function,” says Sophie Turnbull, digital marketing manager at Joseph Joseph, which uses Bronto Software for its email campaigns. “To effectively communicate how our latest product innovation solves an everyday problem and to keep customers coming back, sleek and attractive imagery in our emails is crucial. Nothing showcases our product’s design and benefit, and allows our customers to picture how the item will look in their homes, like a well-shot photograph. We know that consumers only spend a couple of seconds scanning an email to find out if the content is relevant to them, and the amount of information we can share through an image is much greater than just using text.” Click-to-open rates come in as high as 15%.

4. Offer advice to help shoppers

It’s one thing to buy a product but it’s another to get the most out of that product in a way that works for the individual shopper. There’s an opportunity for brands to add value here via YouTube videos and how-to guides.

Dulux took this idea one step further through the launch of its paid-for Amazing Space interior design service. DIY-ers put in details of the room they want to decorate, their preferences and tastes, and click room images that they like or don’t like. Customers can add images that they like from social media sites such as Pinterest and add ‘before’ pictures of rooms by taking a photograph on a mobile phone. They can have a discussion with an online stylist before receiving a personalised style guide and plan for their room, including a 3D visualisation of how it will look. Because this is a paid-for service, shoppers have already bought in to the concept before they come to make a purchase. The brand has worked with affiliates, including, Dunelm and John Lewis, on making the idea work.

5. Make it personal

Relevance is the key word in communications that encourage shoppers to buy. Waitrose used personalisation as it looked to take its in-store customer service to the web. It highlighted relevant and individual content to customers, and says online orders from new and early-stage shoppers grew by up to 24% as a result. The supermarket identified that customers who had shopped online at least five times were more likely to become long-term customers. In response, it ran a marketing campaign offering an £80 discount over the course of five online shops. It used the Monetate experience platform to send shoppers – selected for how many times they had placed an order – a unique incentive code. Conversion of new customers grew by more than 30% while targeting returning visitors led to a 20% uplift in conversions.

Jane Godfrey, digital optimisation manager at Waitrose, said at the time: “The website is a growing part of the Waitrose brand and we want the customer online experience to be consistent with the quality of experience you get in one of our stores.”

Both Ribble Cycles and Yale Door are using innovative personalisation tools that enable buyers to design bespoke products online. Ribble’s Bike Builder enables cyclists to specify their own components, either to buy or to save to a wishlist, while Yale Door has used technology from Blueprint CPQ to enable shoppers to specify their own composite doors.

6. Use social to discover upcoming trends

Smart retailers are increasingly turning to social media as they look to see what fashion trends are emerging – and what to buy and showcase in the months ahead. John Lewis said in its 2015 retail report How we Shop, Live and Look that style choices in womenswear had passed a tipping point. Rather than looking to celebrities, models, actors and the catwalk for inspiration, shoppers were now looking at Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest.

Customers were in effect acting “as their own stylists, making confident choices about the looks that worked best for them”. Womenswear sales grew by 86% over mobile devices as a result. That’s something, said the report, that was “evidence of a more impulsive ‘want it now’ approach fuelled by the instantaneous nature of social media”.

The beauty of social media as a research tool is that it’s freely available to businesses of all sizes. Speaking at the InternetRetailing Europe Summit in Berlin, Matt Bird, founder of UK menswear retailer We Are Gntlmen, said his start-up business looked to channels such as Instagram to for emerging trends and colours: “When you see Kanye West in a camo jacket you can see it’s going to take off. I see what colours are most popular day to day and then make shirts that people like in that colour.”

7. Explain how the product works…

Telling shoppers what a product does, and how they can best use it, is a key part of the selling process. While shoppers may recognise that they need a pair of shoes, it’s not the same instinctive leap when it comes to products they’ve never bought before.

John Lewis recognised this in its first department dedicated to selling products for the smart home. It merchandised items – ranging from an oven that can be turned on from the office to a fridge that can handle online ordering – by setting them in a domestic context and having expert staff on hand to explain how things worked. Smart home items, that are Internet of Things (IoT) enabled were both selling and being searched for online, but, said John Lewis, by selling in store the retailer could give shoppers the chance to touch, feel and understand how they worked.

“We are seeking to demystify the latest smartest technology for our customers,” said Johnathan Marsh, buying director for electricals and home technology at John Lewis, at the time the department opened. Emphasising the importance of staff training, Marsh added: “In-store experiences are key as we’ve seen customer demand for physical experiences before committing to purchase increase.”

8. Enlist customers to share product insights

Shoppers like to hear what people like them thought about the products they are considering buying – feedback from previous buyers can be an invaluable research tool.

This might come in the form of social sharing, from Liking a product on Facebook to sharing images on Instagram or Twitter that show what an item of clothing looks like on a satisfied buyer. Retailers that enable sharing through these avenues open up possible sales. Sharing might also come through ratings and reviews. Amazon’s reviews are famously

in-depth while what TripAdvisor users say about holiday accommodation can be enormously influential. Traders that enable buyers to post on-site reviews offer shoppers a useful decision-making tool that may also stop them clicking away from the site. Retailers of all sizes flag up their ratings to show that they are trusted by customers. Former InternetRetailing Award winner Cult Pens emblazons its 9.9/10 Trustpilot rating on its website – encouraging browsers to take a leap and make that purchase.

9. …and what an experience feels like

Not all retail products can be touched or felt. Experiences such as holidays, days out or theatre trips are, by their nature, intangible. That’s not to say that potential buyers cannot gain good insights into what an experience might be like. The theatre review, for example, offers valuable insights – and travellers now widely rate and review their own experiences online. In the travel industry, Thomas Cook has more recently used virtual reality to find new ways of communicating an experience. Its use of 360-degree virtual reality films to give in-store visitors a taste of what a trip to the pool, a flight on a helicopter in Manhattan or an excursion to the pyramids might feel and look like has helped to boost conversion rates.

According to technology partner Visualise, the in-store virtual reality experience generated hotel and air bookings worth £12,000 in the first three months it was tested, and a 40% return on investment. Some 180% more people booked New York helicopter rides following the launch of the VR experience.

10. Take online information into the store

Rich digital information helps to answer the questions of in-store shoppers. Retailers are making digital information available in the store both through mobile apps and though in-store screens. Boots, for example, has rolled out a Sales Assist app in its store network.

Staff can use this app, developed in partnership between IBM MobileFirst and Apple, to show customers more information about the products they are considering buying – from ratings and reviews and relevant recommendations based on analytics, through to information about where the product is available.

If an item is not available in store, staff can then point customers to a store where it is in stock, or order it online for collection from a store of the individual customer’s choice. At the time of the app’s launch, Robin Phillips, director of omnichannel at development at Boots UK, said, “It will help even our smallest stores feel like a flagship shop, with access to the entire Boots range at their fingertips.”

11. Narrow down the choice on offer

Shoppers are faced with an often-daunting choice when they visit a website that stocks hundreds, thousands or even millions of items. Too many options can overwhelm, leading the customer to click away from the site. Amazon uses personal recommendations to narrow down the choice from the millions of products available to buy on its site, while Littlewoods offers complementary items at the checkout.

Berlin-based eyewear business Mister Spex uses navigation to narrow down the choice of frames available, both in the store and online. By giving information about gender and head size, and further refining through preferred brands and colour, visitors immediately cut the range available down to a manageable few items from the hundreds offered on the site.

Speaking to InternetRetailing ahead of the InternetRetailing Europe Summit held in Berlin in June, Jens Reich, CMO of Mister Spex said: “Early results in our store show that customers really use this logic online and offline to find the right pair of glasses. They prefer this to being overwhelmed by a huge and unsorted number of frames and styles.”

12. Make sure search works

Consumers regularly start their online shopping quests on a search engine: ensuring that searches end on a relevant page on the website is vital. A search for ‘skinny black jeans’ must take the visitor to a page that features that item, says Topman global digital director Gareth Rees-John. Speaking to InternetRetailing at the InternetRetailing Europe Summit, he said more than 50% of searchers who visited the Topman site did not come to the home page.

“If you come in on really tight search terms, the relevance of the content is important,” he noted. “Expectations of search are high. Colour in a search term used to break our search, which was disastrous. We downplayed search till it was good enough. If you’re going to push people towards search you need to make sure it’s really good.”

Now it is much more prominent on the website – important because visitors who use search are more likely to buy than those who go through navigational filters.

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