Upping your eCommerce browsing – having an A Game during the global pandemic

Despite stores opening in the UK on June 15th, browsing as we know it will all but disappear in physical locations – so making it as easy as possible for customers to browse your website and making their path to purchase easy, be it through to store and online, is going to be essential.

So June 15th, the big day when non-essential retail stores finally open their doors for business, is less than two weeks away (at time of writing). Once the expected initial intrigue is over and phased re-openings are nearer completion, we will be closer to understanding what the “new normal” (sorry for using this phrase again!) will be while we ride out the pandemic. The accelerated shift to digital has been well documented here and elsewhere, so this article is focused more on the other shifts that will need to occur on website propositions, either with ‘quick fixes’, more scrutiny of data or accelerated digital transformation.

Offline retail therapy will be replaced by functional, purposeful, funless trips for a while – companies will need to adapt

What is clear is that every element of the physical retail journey will be affected by COVID – with single person shopping trips recommended (despite the relaxation of the distancing laws we have seen), potential parking restrictions to the lack of eateries to break up the shopping journey to the well-publicised shifts in-store layouts, plastic screens, a multitude of cleaning areas for returned or handled products. And of course the likely queues outside and inside stores and at till points. For fashion brands, Michael Gove has already stated that restraint should be exercised when clothes shopping and brands are putting in processes in place in all forms of business to protect employees and public.

This essentially means that what was once seen as a (mostly) fun experience, browsing and buying, will become less enjoyable, and more functional. As consumers adjust to the high street shopping experience, each trip will need to be more planned and considered if it’s not going to be a frustrating one.

We’ve all experienced the frustrations of shopping in grocery stores in recent weeks. How many times in the last few months have you kicked yourself for forgetting something during a supermarket trip knowing that you’ve got to go back around the one-way system at 2 metre distance to add it to your trolley while feeling pressure from those behind you that you need to ‘hurry up’? A quick trip to the high street or shopping centre will disappear for the time being at least, and consumers will either continue to shop online, or go to stores armed in the knowledge that they have enough information to complete their purchase, or continue to shop online.

This is going to put pressure on e-commerce website propositions – either in being better at giving customers the information they need to make their physical retail shopping trip a success – knowing stock is available in store being key (and ideally the omnichannel capabilities in place to be able to pick it up or reserve it) – or if buying online, when they previously preferred shopping in stores (as 80 per cent of people did before the pandemic), that they won’t have to do multiple returns as the physical opportunity to interact with brands, products and store associates will be much more difficult.

Either way, consumers will increasingly be browsing your website and not your stores to make their purchase decisions so businesses are going to have to work even harder to replicate the added value that browsing a physical store can offer – impactful visual merchandising, helpful and knowledgeable sales associates, the ability to sense touch and feel, the upselling opportunities.

This means A Game merchandising, trading, product information, omnichannel visibility, clear customer journeys, underpinned by well managed AI personalisation and data analysis will need more focus than ever before.

Many businesses, I am sure, recognise they lack in some of these areas, and some will need to go through major transformations to improve this, possibly repurposing their workforce from retail, B&M and operations to support the online channel. And quickly. Digital and agile thinking are going to be core to this and a willingness to change processes and ways of working.

Irrespective, here are some suggestions of areas that will need doubled up focus to ensure A Game for customers visiting your website. In all the cases, it’s about realigning your business around the customer, so that you adapt what you do to make the digital browsing experience answer questions that were previously answered mainly within the store environment. This does not mean large transformation projects, though some companies will be accepting that they need to do these, this means looking at the customer journeys and frustrations and using innovation and out of the box thinking to solve those problems.

Get the basics right on your product taxonomy – and then look at PIM systems

At the heart of all online businesses, getting the foundational information correct is essential – and this is especially true of your product taxonomy. Unfortunately, I’ve seen enough examples where this information has sat within an inflexible ERP system or with a Buying and Merchandising department that utilises internal and inconsistent naming conventions for the product that is not adapted to how a consumer browses online. The existing consumer centric and digital first businesses understand this but with continued expectation being put on the e-commerce channel, there should be concerted efforts to get this right.

As well as the benefits for the end consumer by presenting categories in a user friendly format on the website, it will reduce effort and issues for the various technologies that rely on accurate data to attract new customers – behavioural targeting, personalisation software, product feeds that drive your traffic rely on this information being accurate and in a format that allows it to be displayed easily on their platforms. Better, more accurate information here will lead you to be more effective in your marketing channels (Google PLAs, affiliates, SEO) and build a platform for you to create the trading categories that customers navigate through. And getting the right attributes in place will allow the filters in your searchandising and category drilldowns to be all the more effective.

If budgets are more fluid, now might be the time to start looking at PIM (Product Information Technologies) to bridge the gap between your ERP systems and what the end user sees, if you don’t have one already.

Optimise your navigation -and in line with the times

While there are arguments about whether showing detail ‘above the fold’ on mobile or desktop, it’s your navigation and value proposition that will encourage consumers to browse deeper beyond your digital shop window of the home page. Digital native pure-play businesses understand this emphatically and optimise this area not just around product taxonomies but events or experiences or even content. Let customers browse your website as if they are visiting your store for the first time – are you showcasing your full range and adapting your categories to the triggers that are driving the customers to your website to browse? What are those store experiences that they will have missed, where visual merchandising pulled you in to delve deeper?

It’s been documented how well Boohoo have done during this crisis, but in truth, they’ve always focussed a lot of effort on their navigation to offer categories and content beyond just the standard product taxonomies. Their #boohoointhehouse campaign was excellent, and they’ve even created a ‘Stay Home’ category in their top navigation. At my previous company Deckers, especially with the Ugg websites, we spent a lot of time testing the navigation, merchandising and imagery to see what categories and assets worked well and got some great conversion and sales improvements as a result.

Sweat your personalisation and behavioural and other integrated partners – and get or repurpose resource around content creation

With more new customers on your website than ever before, this is the time where you really need to sweat your partners and their various capabilities and dig into the data – providers of personalisation engines pride themselves on their ability to recommend products to consumers and increase conversion and basket sizes – now is the time to really spend more time working with them – what are the shifts in behaviours that are being seen after June 15th? How can you react to them? What are customer frustration points from an omnichannel perspective? If you’re utilising UX software for consumer journey analysis, then surely now is the time when confidence levels will be reached more quickly in your AB tests and will show more quickly where browsing issues occur – put a cross-functional task team together to look at these issues. It’s going to be especially important for those customers I mentioned, who prefer shopping in physical stores, that their potential points of frustration are dealt with.

Underpinning this of course, is the reality that more content than ever will need to improve the user journeys as customers browse the website. Hopefully, your business will be in a place to invest or divert underused creative resources to deliver the assets that will be almost certainly needed to supplement the new customer journeys. Once the creative teams have completed the in-store brand appropriate VM for social distancing, get them focussed on delivering relevant and supportive content (with some digital first training of course…).

Innovate on your Product pages.

So you’ve got the customer to your product page – phew – but in the ‘new normal’ these pages need to work even harder; there are no friends to ask advice from during your shopping trip, no sales associates there to get speak to or check whether there is stock in other locations for you. And equally, customers will be making a choice at this point whether they want to get this item delivered or in store. So if you don’t have omnichannel capabilities in place (store stock availability mainly) and you don’t have the capacity to expose this to the customer, are there other things you can do to help the decision making process?

For example, how can you get customers to reserve product in a store they might want to visit? Can you add at least a link to allow customers to interact with customer service or store staff to check availability on a product, and reserve it? Should you promote your local stores to that consumer once they are on this page (they won’t be going further afield for their shopping).

And how prominent are your customer reviews? Is it time to test if they need to be moved further up the page? Can you integrate customer chat into your product pages if not there already and have some store staff repurposed to answer customer questions about product? And is your delivery and returns proposition clear on this page?

And can you be more agile with your product copy to add responses to customer questions around specific product? Don’t leave it part of a static seasonal go to market process that gets left – store staff will understand and react to product that sells and doesn’t sell. The website needs to also. Be on top of what customer service or store staff tell you about fit issues, and incorporate this into your product pages, so that your customers don’t order online and then return, or reserve and then reject in store (and then it goes back into quarantine for a whole day). Again at Deckers, we had great success in reducing returns by working closely with the store staff to adapt messaging should there be an issue with sizing and recommend to customers to order a size up or down.

And of course, some new and existing technologies will be of greater interest to businesses now as they look to improve conversion, reduce returns and answer product queries on these pages – fit testing, review partners, video and content providers for a start.

Try and innovate and bring the store to the customer online

One of the benefits of stores that will be missed online is the advice that store staff give – it’s one of the major failings of e-commerce websites, where alas it’s only after the fact that the customer gives feedback on the purchase experience – whether through Voice of the Customer programs or surveys, or digital experience technology analysis. Why not preempt this and bring the store to the customer if you can – accepted that this is easier with high conversion, low traffic stores, but testing around key product categories may be an opportunity if you have a large SKU count.

One of my favourite examples is Vashi who offer consumers a free video consultation which can be booked through the website easily. Customer service chat is available throughout the website at any point. Customers cannot browse in store any more how can you optimise this for your business? Or even set up a personal shopping experience for online or offline with a trained store associate – always, in my opinion, the best at knowing how to sell the product to an end consumer – I still am expecting that we will see some of the restaurant booking systems showing up more regularly in e-commerce platforms as they look to diversify their offerings so that as customers consider visiting a store, they will have a specific slot to talk to a store associate, perhaps with an initial wish list of product to discuss shared with the associate. Channels and partnerships are becoming increasingly blurred.

To conclude

It’s more than likely that even once the stores open if we look at what’s been happening globally in retail it’s unlikely footfall and sales will increase in retail back to pre-pandemic levels any time soon, but that does not mean that it’s the heyday for the e-commerce channel. Many departments have until recently remained siloed from the rest of the business and changes in thinking and more collaboration are needed outside these channels to create the shift to the more consumer and digital first businesses.

This pandemic has taught us, as the lockdown in the UK is slowly lifted, that humans crave interaction, and while retail fleets will suffer, consumers will always want the option of personal interaction and advice when they are considering product purchases. But in the end, while there will be acceleration in the shape and size of the ‘high street’, it will not disappear, it will simply be very different in the future. And in my view, those that put the customer at the centre and try and bridge the gap of the benefits and fun of physical store shopping to the more emotionless online purchase funnel will be the ones that thrive.

By David Williams, Consultant, DHW Digital Ltd

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