Ecommerce and the paradox of choice: how brands can win in the era of the ‘infinite shelf’

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We need to move on from a world that relies on the old behaviours of search, sort and browse, says Mudit Jaju, senior partner and head of MEC/Wavemaker commerce.

Pontificating about ecommerce is remarkably easy: there is a litany of consumer benefits – lots of choice, detailed product content, convenience in ways that we never thought possible. In 2015, in the US alone, more people shopped online than in store during Black Friday: 102 million headed to stores, while more than 103 million said they shopped online.

It’s easy to get carried away with the benefits to consumers but it’s important to take a more nuanced view and examine some of the drawbacks of ecommerce to consumers and what can be done to overcome these.

By 2020, 85 percent of customer interactions in retail will be managed by artificial intelligence demonstrating the rate and scale of expected adoption

One of the most frequently touted benefits of ecommerce is the infinite shelf, a world of quite literally millions of choices. This has worked for a while, but as more products and more categories become commercially meaningful online, we need to move on from a world that relies on the old behaviours of search, sort and browse.

This does not scale effectively and can quickly spiral out of control, leading to a world where a simple search for “cameras” on Amazon generates eight million results. When you scale this up to a less defined purchase – say “gifts for men” or “gifts under £200” it becomes even more unmanageable.

The current solution that many retailers have adopted, allowing products to get listed in a survival of the fittest approach, leaves a consumer frustrated and unsure of how to proceed.  Nobody has ever navigated to the 49th search results page.

One solution emerging is intelligent product selectors. As much as it is the buzzword du jour, AI is enabling consumer centricity to truly land.  Retail companies like North Face have started implementing AI to provide customers with an online expert personal shopper.

By using a dialogue-based approach to help customers shop, the retailer can gather information by asking questions such as where and when a product will be used and who will be using it, and suggest products based on the responses.  The AI-powered shopping advisor can surface the most relevant products and save the consumer from browsing hundreds of options.

 These executions are moving from a gimmick to gold dust for brands – North Face saw dwell time on its site increase by two minutes – as more retailers adopt these types of innovative customers-centric experiences.  By 2020, 85 percent of customer interactions in retail will be managed by artificial intelligence demonstrating the rate and scale of expected adoption.

Connecting with shoppers on a personal level is a challenge for luxury retailers. One of the more prominent drawbacks of ecommerce is that it lacks tangible elements important for decision-making, such as trying on products or asking questions.

LVMH is leveraging technology to make up for this shortcoming, creating an elevated shopping experience with the launch of the 24 Sevres platform, to build relationships with users via interactive customer service technology. The 24 Sèvres app includes a video chat feature that allows users to talk to a stylist based in Paris. This means that customers can get the same service as in-store – perhaps even better, due to the focused nature of a video call.

Companies can be lulled into thinking they’re already doing everything right, especially if they are making sale

Retailers and sellers are only one part of the equation. Ecommerce necessitates a focus on consumer centricity from manufacturers as well.  Management of range hierarchy is crucially important – if you are the leading manufacturer of mascara, what do you want to see happen when a consumer searches on Amazon for a specific brand term versus a generic category term? How does this change by season? For manufacturers, many of whom rely on third party retailers to connect with the consumer, there is a lack of the immediate one to one connection that Direct To Consumer (DTC) permits.

This is one factor driving many manufacturers to explore DTC as a clear sales channel. Those who are winning are the ones who are delivering an actual consumer experience rather than something blatantly transactional. Product detail pages are easy to forget, but experiences forge a deeper connection with consumers.

Companies can be lulled into thinking they’re already doing everything right, especially if they are making sale. Most know how to think through customer search needs or have ramped up their use of social media. But a common pitfall in ecommerce is focussing on satisfying customers across individual touchpoints, from the interaction when they connect with the store, to the product, customer service or sales staff.

But this siloed focus on individual touchpoints misses the bigger—and more important—picture: the customer’s end-to-end ecommerce experience. In an era where time is the ultimate commodity, and the only one consumers can’t buy more of, brands must consider a holistic ecommerce strategy that is not confined to the purchase point, but instead endeavours to remove friction at every point during the purchase journey.

Innovative ecommerce experiences can allow retailers and manufacturers to provide a more bespoke service, transcending the one-way online shopping experience, and allowing consumers to connect with the brand on a more personal and meaningful level.

This article first appeared in www.campaignlive.co.uk

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