A top e-commerce strategy seen as ticket to strong sales

Analysts provide tips on strengthening e-commerce strategies.

E-commerce is a big market that’s growing bigger every year.

In 2015, U.S. companies are expected to rake in $280 billion in sales through e-commerce efforts, according to Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. Only two years ago, U.S. online retail sales amounted to $176.2 billion.

Business owners who want a part of this growing market will need to invest more resources into providing exactly what their e-commerce customers are demanding, industry observers say.

Online customers expect useful product information, access from any mobile device, intuitive interfaces, full support, a fast checkout process that accepts all payment methods, and a place to rate their experiences. They don’t tolerate screen freezes, transactional snafus or confusing menus.

"Customers today expect their [shopping] experiences to be relevant, to meet their needs and to not require a lot of time," said Haluk Nural, a senior vice president for dunnhumby, an international retail consulting firm with headquarters in London.

Those expectations sound deceptively easy. But they require a well-honed e-commerce strategy and a large investment in time, not to mention technology.

What should an e-commerce strategy contain, and how should a business go about evaluating its website? Experts point to six key factors that can make or break a customer’s shopping experience and, ultimately, an e-commerce business.

Navigation. A site that is hard to use or confusing to navigate can cause a visitor to give up and leave, so any customer experience strategy needs to start by taking a look at website design, said Brian K. Walker, an analyst at Forrester.

Ask employees and customers to give feedback on how easy or difficult it is to find product information, connect to customer service or navigate the checkout process. How many clicks does it take to buy something? Are the menus clear and comprehensive or confusing? 

"Look at the usability of your interfaces as well as customer abandonment rates," Walker advised. "There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit to be had by improving simple things like that."

Integration. To provide a seamless e-commerce experience, the site must be integrated with back-end enterprise systems, including CRM, billing and order fulfillment.

"You have to have to have control over all your data in order to deliver consistent and relevant experiences across various touch points," Walker said. "It’s no longer OK to have e-commerce be a standalone system."

Personalization. This involves anticipating a customer’s needs and automatically serving up information and products that match those needs. Personalization can be done at a very basic level using cookies and IP tracking, which can show the visitor’s geographic region.

At the high end, personalization technologies use rules engines and real-time analytics to match unknown visitor data and existing customer CRM data with product characteristics and marketing offers. How sophisticated the personalization needs to be depends on how many different products a business has and how many consumers it targets .

Dunhumby’s Nural creates informational content such as videos, blogs and articles for consumer goods manufacturers and their retail partners’ e-commerce sites. To maximize the value of that information, Nural and his colleagues use pre- and post-purchase data to estimate customer needs and provide customized Web views.

"Some consumers are looking for value or diversity of selection or best price or convenience. We want to understand the customer’s needs state and make sure that the right communication happens at the right time," he said.

Denis Pombriant, CEO of Beagle Research LLC in Stoughton, Mass., added that he would like to see more businesses collect and study customer information for better business insight. "We need to work at capturing and analyzing customer data for unmet needs," he said.

Product associations. Nural also uses data to provide complementary product options to businesses so they can entice customers to buy more. These complementary products might urge the customer to purchase organic maple syrup to go with their organic waffles, for example, or wrapping paper to match party plates.

"Retail e-commerce sites that can link multiple products into a complete solution will be the most successful," he said.

Mobile access. Yankee Group Research Inc., a Boston research company focused on mobile technologies, found that 54% of consumers downloaded a mobile shopping application last year, while 83% were "interested" in mobile e-commerce.

"Smartphone shoppers have changed the face of retail," noted Sheryl Kingstone, a director at the Yankee Group.

She advised e-commerce companies to stop treating mobile shopping as a separate experience and start integrating it with main e-commerce systems. Otherwise, mobile shoppers will continue to face "dead ends" such as click-to-call buttons that don’t work, she said.

She also suggests investing in mobile e-commerce apps that natively support smartphones and other devices, as opposed to being limited to supporting a minimized website designed for mobile browsers. 

Updates. The constant change in products and consumer culture means e-commerce sites must keep up to date on customer sentiment as well as product information and content. Old product information and articles on yesterday’s trends can make a site look abandoned.

"E-commerce managers must regularly re-evaluate their strategies and update their sites," said Kate Leggett, a Forrester analyst. "You can’t publish content then walk away from it."

Neglect can tarnish brand image and sales. Walker said, "Consumers don’t think, 'Hey that site's not very good,' but rather, ‘Your company’s not very good.' "

This was first published in October 2012

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