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Keeping Consumers Happy

Online retailers can still lure in skittish consumers

With the economy suffering, there's no way to spin the fact times are tough. But hitting the "panic button" is not a solution, as serious matters are never properly solved through reactive measures. In the case of online marketing professionals, it is essential they remain proactive in their strategies to gain and retain customers.

Retailers need to take a pragmatic approach and make sensible business decisions that encompass cost savings, while continuing to invest for the future. Rather than falling back to a knee-jerk and ultimately counterproductive reaction such as across-the-board cost-cutting, companies would be better off utilizing this time as an opportunity to explore new business models and methodologies.

History has shown us that loss of faith in the economy and inertia amplifies downturns into market crashes. Fear tends to lead to paralysis, and the last thing marketing professionals need is to be further handcuffed due to external circumstances. It is essential that retailers continue to develop their online entities with a critical eye toward mitigating costs and investing for the future. This is not an impossible task. Finding the right solutions at the right price is the key.

Fortunately for marketers looking to increase order values of online purchases, the answer can be very simple. A social behavioral merchandizing platform designed to cater to each shopper's needs is an affordable investment that will assist during this down time, while providing a framework for future success.

Deployment of this kind of technology does not require a capital investment. Working with a vendor built on a performance-based business model ensures that only the uplift in sales directly affected by the system is counted for share fees.

While purse strings may tighten, consumers are unlikely to stop spending entirely. With the holidays on the horizon, retailers must take the time now to explore ways to attract, retain and maximize customer visits.

What Do Customers Want?

Shoppers today want what they have always wanted: convenience, affordable prices and products that fit their tastes. Yesteryear's multi-channel landscape is cluttered with "big box" and discount stores, online sites and so on. The Internet has changed the face of shopping forever and will play an enormous role in the rebounding of the retail industry. With consumers flocking to the Web to comparison shop and read consumer reviews, eCommerce sites must be adequately prepared to meet these needs. More importantly, retailers must be prepared to convert these browsers into buyers.

Where is a Good Place to Begin?

Many online shopping trips begin with a search engine query. The Web is a noisy place, and convenience is a hot commodity. Therefore, deploying technology that leads consumers directly to what they are looking for is key to converting someone who is "kicking the tires" into a repeat customer.

Landing page optimization is a unique strategy used to increase Web site traffic. Directing consumers to the landing page of the product being searched, versus the homepage to the entire site, the technology presents the products and services that are most likely to appeal to them. For example, searches for "Timberland boots," will bring shoppers promptly to the section of the site where this outdoor gear can be viewed and subsequently purchased.

Also, with behavioral merch-andizing techniques, additional products and services can be presented automatically and in real time on the landing page. Using the collective behavior of all visitors to the site to designate these items will ensure shoppers are presented with merchandise that truly resonates with their needs.

Quickly delivering the desired item to a customer increases the chances that he or she will purchase the product, as it was fast and simple to find—and in addition to the sale, this initiates the early stages of brand loyalty development.

What's the Most Effective Way of Administering Recommendations?

Consumers give retailers all the information they need to make intelligent recommendations just by browsing and shopping for merchandise. Simple tracking of implicit and explicit actions empowers retailers with all the knowledge they need. Applying behavioral analytics shows customers the retailer is paying attention to their specific behavior, and not simply pushing a popular item or old inventory.

The key to offering predictive recommendations is to track customer behavior. Following implicit actions performed such as click patterns, searches conducted and products purchased enables the system to assess what the shopper is seeking.

Knowing what they are looking for ensures that appropriate products are presented. To further support this strategy, the system also gathers intelligence on explicit actions such as basket content, click stream and collaborative search results.

Retailers who elect other merchandizing methods—such as the top-seller approach or deployment of rules-based segmentation—do so at their peril. What they'll find is that they are unable to meet their customers' individualized needs and, as a consequence, cannot compete against the organizations successfully employing these modern methods

How Can Retailers Leverage Web 2.0?

Consumers now require a social element be a part of their Internet experience, and their purchasing activities shouldn't be regarded any differently. The advent of social networking has forced retailers to provide peer-driven product reviews. Once hotly debated due to the possible ramifications of negative comments, it has now become common practice for retailers to provide unedited product reviews. It is important that eCommerce sites include this functionality, as studies show that almost 50% of those shopping online rely on feedback from peers.

Another Web 2.0-based feature sought by shoppers is advanced interactions that enable users to invite peers to view personal gift lists for the holidays, birthdays, etc. This offering, in turn, encourages friends and family to become customers themselves.

How to Lessen the Burden of Returns

Let's not sugarcoat things: Returns cost everyone time, money and aggravation. The customer is dissatisfied for some reason with the item and has to make an additional trip to the post office. This is not convenient and can cause the customer to lose faith in the retailer. The retailer must take the product back, and may face losing revenue as the packaging is surely damaged and in all probability cannot be circulated back into inventory.

Structuring Web sites with features such as ratings, reviews and live chat or question and answer functionality enables customers to take a more active role. This reduces the chances that consumers receive products that do not meet their expectations, thereby minimizing returns and the number of resultant calls made to the call center.

Driving shoppers to Web Sites

Remember, retailers have all the data at their fingertips on how to best communicate with their customers. Even abandoning a shopping cart can provide organizations with data they need to approach consumers with products and promotions that will likely fit their needs.

It is important that retailers not spam shoppers with items and news that does not reflect their specific needs and interests. Be sure to use previous buying behaviors to structure communications. Targeting newsletters toward customers' specific habits ensures consumers receive relevant information, significantly increasing the chances they will become repeat customers in the future.

Is Mobile Content Important?

It's also important that marketers enable their content for mobile devices; online shopping does not only happen in front of a computer. Websites that format their material for mobile devices are sure to become the preferred retailer for individuals seeking fast and simple shopping solutions.

Putting it all Together

All (or a combination) of the aforementioned functionality must be in place to ensure retailers are serving the modern consumer. Remember this: Visitors can leave a site just as fast as they entered it if it does not immediately appeal to them, or present relevant products or promotions that match what they are searching for.

In a cluttered arena, shoppers can easily visit a competing site and quickly determine if that retailer can meet their needs. It falls to you to ensure things don't progress to that point.

Rolf Elmér, Ph.D. is CEO of Avail Intelligence. He previously served as CEO of Carl Bro Energy and managing director of Sigma Exallon AB, in addition to several years as a management consultant at Accenture.