By Amberly Dressler, Managing Editor
Of all the investments being made into e-commerce, none are more important than customer experience (CX), but there's no single feature or vendor that can help retailers meet every shopper expectation; rather, it's myriad solutions working together to improve the interactions shoppers have with a company from pre- to post-sale.
+++ For every dollar invested in improving CX, businesses generate three dollars in return. If that weren't enough, those that invest in CX can expect to see an 11 percent increase in revenue within the next 12 months (Avanade, 2016).
When it comes to customer experience - Forrester defines it as how customers perceive their interactions with a company - end-users are rightfully the judge and jury; and they aren't shy about voicing what they want today, even though those expectations are likely to change tomorrow.
Change is a recurring theme this year in both e-commerce and American politics. Shoppers are changing how they access brands - using mobile in droves to research, engage and buy online as well as expecting near real-time responses for service queries made on social media - while everyday citizens are considering who to vote for in the upcoming election and sharing opinions across the Web. Website Magazine of course reports on changing consumer expectations and the technology to meet them within our issue pages as well as daily online, but we also got into the political spirit recently featuring presidential candidate Donald Trump's likeness on our July cover to complement the feature, "Lead Generation: Making It Great Again." In fairness, Hillary Clinton is donning this month's cover for our feature on e-commerce and the customer experience that shoppers expect and that retailers are investing in.
Back in 1996 while serving as First Lady, Clinton wrote a book called, "It Takes a Village," which focused on "the impact that individuals and groups outside the family have, for better or worse, on a child's well-being."
In retail, there are many internal and external influences shaping decisions (what technology to invest in for the organizations themselves and for shoppers, who to buy from, endorse and remain loyal to). In order to provide the types of customer experiences shoppers expect today, it takes a combination of stakeholders who can identify, predict and respond to shifting behaviors and technology providers that can support it all. It takes a village, but stellar CX in e-commerce is attainable.
GREAT E-COMMERCE EXPECTATIONS
+++Two-thirds of brands say competition made their organization realize the need to prioritize customer experience (Avanade, 2016).
The retail industry is as complex as it is competitive. Scrappy, Web-only shops are competing with recognizable retailers with storefronts - who are battling internally with their own legacy systems and processes - while both are struggling to figure out how to deal with Amazon (see sidebar); not to mention the brands themselves selling directly to consumers rather than their retail partners exclusively. The industry - like politics - is ripe for "disruption" as cliché as the word has become; not too unlike how President Barack Obama's mobilization of younger voters via analytics and social media ousted Clinton for the Democratic nomination back in 2008 and ultimately, by many accounts, won him the election.
Whether it's politics or retail, everyone can do better, and we're seeing it already in e-commerce with subscription services whose CX efforts are shaping expectations for personalization, content and convenience.
Stitch Fix and LeTote (both clothing subscriptions for women), for example, offer engaging apps with style questionnaires, rating systems to provide instant and direct feedback, personalized suggestions and more, all while remembering those preferences when a person visits the website to interact with the companies instead of through the app as well as providing shoppers more content to complement their purchases.
Retailers may have an idea of the complex technology stack in place to fuel those seamless experiences, but end-users certainly don't care and aren't afraid to spend hours (even days in some cases) finding the best shopping experience and the best bang for their buck.
THE ENDLESS VISIT
+++ Only 42 percent of purchases happen in the first 60 minutes following a shopper's first visit, the majority happen much later (Monetate, 2016).
While it would be much easier on retailers if customers came to their site, found what they were looking for and bought it on their very first visit, that's just not how shoppers are shopping today according to recent Monetate data. Looking at more than 7 billion online shopping sessions that took place during Q1 2016, Monetate found that it's more likely consumers will visit a site, leave, come back on another device and repeat the process for up to 48 hours before they buy. Shoppers are therefore influenced by a variety of touchpoints (e.g., search, social, email, etc.) and competitor messaging during these "endless visits" where research comes first and actual purchases sometimes never happen. The experience that is delivered to consumers within that first 48-hour window though is what will keep them engaged and ultimately confident enough to buy - any friction along that path will send them packing. Just think of how much marketing of herself and her ideas that Clinton has had to do to stay relevant for the past couple decades; 48 hours is doable for Internet retailers with the right strategies and solutions in place.
+++ Almost 50 percent of millennials have made a purchase based on the "suggested items" option on a retailer's site (Cue Connect, 2016).
As shoppers use their phones and visit retail sites to fill "hallow" moments as Demandware's Head of Consumer Insights Rick Kenney describes these interactions - like while waiting for an Uber or an appointment - retailers committed to customer experience must understand that specific visit will likely be ended by a distraction rather than a conversion, and recognize shoppers when they come back to the site to research more or actually buy, whether it's on the same device or not. The visits have to build upon each other in order to deliver products and promotions that fit the context of the visit; is it the first visit on mobile, or is it the third visit but first on desktop, or are there items in their shopping cart or have they bought before?
Some content management systems and e-commerce platforms (together or alone) enable merchandisers to capture data about visitors and serve up content that will best meet their needs in that moment, which is what Acquia Lift does according to David Aponovich, senior director of digital experience at Acquia and former Forrester analyst. For example, personalization and automation features within the system can prioritize content based on whether someone is an early stage buyer versus someone who has come back to the site again and again.
The Lift offering from Acquia creates a data record of all website visitors whether they are known or unknown with the goal of tracking everyone in order to build profiles. What's impressive about Lift is that it can still track anonymous visitors (like those who have yet to make a purchase or those not signed in) and target content to them as they proceed through the site, important for today's lengthy or endless visits.
The "magic happens" however according to Aponovich when the visitor gives the site some information - like signing in or buying something - to attach meaningful data to their profile record.
"A lot of people talk about personalization and delivering contextual experiences but not enough organizations are doing it," said Aponovich. "By using Lift, it's a great way to aggregate data because it's tied so closely to CMS and the delivery of content."
Data can also be pulled into Acquia Lift from other sources like a customer relationship management (CRM) solution to help deliver a custom Web experience that goes far beyond a static one where everyone sees the same thing.
When Demandware analyzed the shopping activity of more than 400 million shoppers worldwide, the commerce platform found that the use of color descriptors in on-site searches grew 22 percent year over year (YOY) with "black" and "white" accounting for the top color-included keywords. What this indicates, according to Kenney of Demandware, is that shoppers know that site search should work as intended and should help accelerate each visit. Even though they are willing to spend days looking for the perfect product, shoppers want quick access to the exact item they are looking for when it comes time to buy or even research on a competitor's site. So while shoppers are less likely to invest a lot of time in each visit (time on site has decreased for both mobile and desktop visits), they are coming back more often and expecting functions like search to aid them in discovery. It indicates the maturation of shoppers and their expectations.
Site search is an important investment for retailers to make and a leader in this area is Coveo, which has a partnership with CMS provider Sitecore. The self-learning site search app from Coveo for Sitecore "automatically learns from visitor behavior, tunes relevance and recommends relevant content," so even site searches that aren't as specific as "black dress" can help retailers understand what customers really want and surface the most relevant content to each visitor.
Access expert strategy for using marketplaces like Amazon to complement your retail experience at wsm.co/managemarket.
+++Seventy-eight percent of shoppers want products to be brought to life with images and 69 percent want product reviews (Bigcommerce, 2016).
When a person moves through a retail website they are searching and filtering for items they want to learn more about. Once they get to a product page, it's up to the retailer to include as much information about the product as they can for the shopper to feel comfortable purchasing the item.
Reviews have longed played an important role in buyer confidence - as this user-generated content is more trusted than anything a brand can publish - but getting reviews can prove difficult.
Get some best practices for creating emails that generate more reviews at wsm.co/3askreview.
Shopping carts are a key part of a customer's journey, specifically for those on endless visits. Demandware recommends "persisting the basket," so that a person's shopping cart is available for the next time they visit the site whether it's on desktop or mobile. It's about being smarter with each page view because most mobile visits are fleeting and shoppers are creating more baskets (Demandware reported a 20 percent increase over the prior year) as a way to track their own interest. The mobile cart is the new wish list, according to Kenney, so it's important that its contents remain available for at least a full 30 days. During this time, plenty of re-engagement campaigns can be initiated to give shoppers a little nudge.
For instance, thanks to its acquisition of marketing automation provider Bronto, retailers using NetSuite can create a re-engagement workflow that includes such triggers as sending an email to people who looked at the site 3-4 times but didn't buy anything or a promotional code to someone who viewed the same item multiple times but had yet to purchase. And, according to Bronto research some shoppers are even creating baskets just to bait retailers to incentivize them to complete their purchases.
Despite shoppers "basketing" more on mobile, conversions are typically not taking place there. Monetate reports that when browsing starts on mobile, 64 percent of those purchases occur on the same device compared to when browsing starts on desktop, 99 percent of those purchases occur on desktop. While we know that shoppers are typically just killing time on mobile devices, this data is still a red flag that mobile users are experiencing some friction and choose to abandon their visits rather than purchase the items being viewed. There are some initiatives that can make this final part of the funnel much easier, including mobile payments.
Use of solutions including Apple Pay, Google Wallet, Visa Checkout and OneTouch from PayPal haven't reached critical mass yet, but they are useful in helping shoppers pay quickly and in a hassle-free way, and that merits the attention of sellers.
E-commerce experts expect that when Apple Pay comes to the mobile Web (via Safari on the iPhone, iPad and Mac) it will have a material impact on mobile conversions. Expected to be ready before 2016's holiday shopping season, Apple Pay on iOS (the operating system that dominates a 65 percent share of mobile traffic according to Demandware) can reduce some of the friction mobile Web users have when trying to checkout, and may even encourage more visitors to actually start the checkout process because they don't have to fumble for their credit cards and can fill out less form fields.
While Apple Pay will no doubt accelerate conversions for those browsing on their mobile devices, where the industry could use even more innovation is incorporating social payments. Venmo is a popular social payments app, which allows friends/family/acquaintances to pay each other. Their transactions then appear in a news feed similar to nearly all other social networks. The first e-commerce platforms to allow for a Venmo integration with mobile browsing would have an "in" with the younger generations who are using Venmo to pay roommates their share of utilities or even split the costs of a restaurant bill or - even better for retailers - chip in for gifts.
Imagine browsing for a gift on an iPhone and then charging friends for their share through Venmo.
A Seattle-based startup called Gift Starter offers something similar in that its concept is around "group gifting." Shoppers search for a gift (from its curated selection), find the perfect one, decide how many slots are available for people to pitch in (like 20 slots for a $100 gift or 10 slots for a $50 gift) and then Gift Starter creates a campaign (think GoFundMe) to fill the slots, and ultimately sends the person the gift once the slots are fulfilled. Gift Starter also offers a gift concierge who can guide shoppers to find the perfect gift or help them start their campaign - a feature not isolated to this company.
Extend the Experience
Discover how specialized packaging can encourage social shares and more sales in a Q&A with Dotcom Distribution's CEO at wsm.co/extendexp.
Whether it's through site search or live chat, shoppers are entering queries (often using natural language) to get answers throughout the Web and some retailers are delivering that experience better than others by proactively guiding shoppers to what they need. Many retailers are turning to live chat as a way to "greet" or engage customers who are new to the site, are spending a certain amount of time on a particular page or are about to leave. The more common approach is to simply have live chat available for customers to use as they wish, which seems less intrusive to many but could leave money on the table.
Moxie, a provider of customer engagement software, finds that engaged customers (those who participate with a chat either on their own accord or through proactive service) convert 28 percent higher than non-engaged customers (who don't chat). Further, customers who chat with a brand versus on the phone, convert at a three percent higher rate. One of the benefits of Moxie in particular is how it can recognize certain customer behaviors or characteristics to proactively serve the most appropriate content and suggestions while anticipating needs. For example, if a person enters an invalid promotional code, Moxie can serve a valid one so that the conversion is not lost. Another example is immediately firing off a password reset email if a person is struggling to log in.
These pre-set rules are going to dictate how brands serve customers in the future like bots (software that runs automated tasks) being used in Facebook Messenger as a way to more quickly respond to those seeking support from customer service teams on the social media network. This is important considering one in three people use social media as the first place they contact a brand when they have an issue, but of the brands that do respond, they keep customers waiting an average of 11 hours (Sprout Social, 2016).
DELIVERING ON PROMISES
+++Forty-six percent of respondents expect companies to deliver faster than they did a year ago (Dropoff, 2016).
Whether it's a first visit or a fifth that gets a shopper to convert, the customer experience doesn't end at product selection and fulfillment of those orders is playing a significant role in CX today, from inventory to shipping options.
"Shoppers aren't interested in the complexities behind the scenes," said Shane Desrochers, vice president of digital commerce and retail analytics at Aptos. "What they do care about, however, is that products are available to them when and where they want to buy them, and it's up to the retailer - and their tech stack - to make that happen."
Using a solution suite like Aptos allows retailers to have "one version of truth for customers products and orders" to make sure they can respond to customers smartly regardless of how they want to interact with a company, such as pulling up past online purchase history in-store or providing accurate inventory levels to an online shopper who wants to pick up at the nearest brick-and-mortar location.
Transparency of inventory is not limited to Aptos, of course, and a pretty innovative fulfillment option emerged this year in NetSuite's Intelligent Order Management, which uses algorithms to give end-users the best scenario for an order like how to get it the quickest or lower shipping costs - all defined by the customer at checkout.
Stitch Labs should also be on a retailer's radar as the platform syncs their inventory with sales channels, accounting software, and shipping and fulfillment channels so that retailers have a clear view all in one place of how much specific inventory they have/need going in and out of various channels.
With all the different parts in play, it's these software solutions whose aim is "transparency" and even self-service across channels that can really help retailers tie their CX together.
THE RESULTS ARE IN
Even with the consolidation that is happening on the Web today (think Salesforce buying Demandware, Microsoft picking up LinkedIn, or any of the other recent mergers and acquisitions), many retailers are running their organizations on myriad solutions working together to improve the interactions shoppers have with a company from pre- to post-sale. While there is complexity in that, those that are investing in software to improve CX - whether it's through more relevant content, better site search or improved fulfillment options - are the retailers who will trump the competition.