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3 Questions for Every E-Commerce Retailer

Posted on 10.02.2014

:: By Harry O’Halloran, AIM Consulting ::


The shopping experience is changing fast. Not long ago, making a purchase required either a visit to a brick-and-mortar store or placing a toll-free phone call during regular business hours to order an item from a catalog. In 1995, Amazon.com started selling books online and by the turn of the 21st Century, e-commerce was a word in our common vocabulary. According to research firm eMarketer, global business-to-consumer (B2C) e-commerce sales are estimated to hit $1.5 trillion in 2014

The retail economy has become integrated with our computers and mobile devices. Consumers now look up products online to fuel in-store purchases and use mobile phones to compare products across stores while shopping. The ability to research products, compare prices, read reviews and make purchases at the click of a button has created a new kind of consumer—one with high expectations for the digital experience.

These days, retailers must do more than provide real-time inventory checking and a digital shopping cart if they want to convert visitors into customers. At a minimum, retailers must ensure a quick and seamless shopping experience through every customer touch point, fully utilize user ratings and recommendations to help consumers make decisions and leverage customer data in a responsible manner to deliver valuable services. 

1. Can shoppers make a purchase at your store from anywhere…on any device? 

One of the biggest challenges facing retailers today is meeting consumer demand for a frictionless digital experience no matter what device they are using. Younger shoppers, in particular Millennials, have limited patience for any digital experience that isn’t quick and intuitive. Unlike days past where retailers had the luxury of limited competition and time to deliver on an out-of-stock item or overcome other inconveniences, like slow loading pages, today’s shopper can go to another store in just a few clicks. 

Mobile devices have contributed greatly to the expectation that the online shopping experience should be fast and painless. People are more dependent on their smartphones than they are on any other technology and have grown accustomed to having answers at a touch. They are never without their phones and are doing much of their online shopping with them. A study by comScore in 2013 revealed that 35 percent of total visits to the most popular e-commerce sites come exclusively from mobile. That means that retailers who do not provide an intuitive mobile experience are effectively turning away a third of their customers. 

In order to attract, engage and convert customers, retailers must integrate content and functionality across many different technologies, applications and locations. Companies are accomplishing this in numerous ways, such as using responsive Web design or building native mobile applications to create winning digital experience on mobile devices. Retailers are also making use of in-store technologies such as beacons, which access mobile devices to provide customer service reps with information about a customer’s interaction path so they can solve customer problems in a quick and efficient manner. What's more, targeted offers can also be sent to customers' phones to move shoppers toward purchase. 

Although the tactics are numerous and the technology ever-evolving, the intent is always the same: to satisfy customer needs quickly and thoroughly no matter how they choose to interact. 

2. Do you provide shoppers with user-generated content to help them make purchasing decisions?

Since the explosion of social media, consumers have relied heavily on user generated content (e.g. content written by customers, like reviews, blog posts, comments, etc.) for help making purchasing decisions. In fact, user generated content is so critical to the decision-making process that it’s no longer a “nice to have” for online retailers. Ratings and reviews have been shown to be particularly critical on e-commerce sites, with many companies having demonstrated an increase in conversions after implementing them. Today, there’s no question that e-commerce needs user-generated content; the question is how to get the most out of it.

To capitalize on the power that user-generated media has to convert visitors into customers, brands must be willing to provide as many touch points as possible for consumer-written content to be aggregated and showcased. This means asking for ratings and reviews not just on the e-commerce site itself during the checkout process, but through social media, online review sites, via surveys and so on. Then, since 84 percent of online shoppers refer to at least one social media site for recommendations before shopping online, brands can leverage each customer’s unique social network and personalize what product reviews are displayed to them based on what their friends recommended. 

It is also important to incentivize consumers for the content they provide and share. Offer a coupon, credit, rewards points or other incentive to customers for writing a review. Then capitalize on word-of-mouth marketing by offering additional incentives to consumers who share their recommendations with their friends on social networks. 

3. Do you leverage customer data in a manner that provides tangible value without invading privacy? 

The most successful e-commerce brands nurture relationships with consumers through collected data, but it’s important to do this in a way that provides value without invading privacy. For instance, a customer’s browsing or buying history can be used to make purchasing recommendations. Leveraging data can also enhance consumer engagement, which can lead to more purchases or the creation of user-generated content. For example, Gamification—the concept of applying game-design thinking to applications or websites to make them more fun and engaging—is used by some brands to encourage customers to understand and increase their “loyalty quotient” for perks and prizes.  

Of course, there is a risk that the consumer may not agree with how his or her data is being used and may choose another retailer to receive his or her business if they feel line has been crossed. While online privacy comfort thresholds are subjective, companies can mitigate the risk by interacting with their customers as organically as possible. For instance, rather than using customers’ location-based services to send geographically-specific coupons, you can provide them with more general content that’s useful but doesn’t indicate you know exactly where they are. 

As more valuable services derive from data, people generally become more at ease giving up their information. However, it is imperative for retailers for understand consumer preferences--what’s okay and what’s not okay when it comes to how and when to contact them. This is an ever-changing line that retailers must constantly evaluate. The way to do this is to explore new tactics in test markets, analyze the results and continuously adapt. 

The data and privacy conversation will only intensify as wearables like Google Glass, smart watches and more personal gadgets become more common. Though wearables may herald the next wave of e-commerce opportunity for brands and consumers, they also present unique challenges, from optimizing content to such small device footprints to addressing the privacy issues created by unintentional or unwitting interaction. 

The Tip of the Digital Iceberg

As drastically as e-commerce has changed from its introduction almost 20 years ago, it will continue to evolve as technologies improve and new innovations are introduced. The tactics discussed here—ensuring consumers can quickly access your e-commerce site from any device, making the most of user-generated content, and leveraging collected data in a way that makes customers feel valued—are just the tip of the iceberg for what is possible in today’s digital landscape. While the future of e-commerce will continue to be extremely competitive, companies willing to embrace technology and use it to build stronger relationships with their customers will be the ones that come out on top.


Harry O’Halloran is a Client Services Executive with AIM Consulting Chicago. He has led large enterprise digital strategy, development and re-platforming initiatives for clients such as Grainger, Lenovo, Motorola, Northern Trust, Vonage and Avaya. He can be contacted at hohalloran@aimconsulting.com.

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