When did eCommerce give up on shopping? Everywhere you look it seems retail websites are racing to make prices so low and checkout so easy that consumers won’t be able to stop themselves from hitting “Pay Now.” But in doing so, they’re selling both themselves, and their customers short.
Way back at the dawn of eCommerce, a lot of fuss was made over the limited potential of online shopping. An online outfit with little overhead could offer a competitive price, the argument went, but most people want to build a relationship with a shopkeeper, drag their spouse into the dressing room, and hold a product in their hand before they make a decision.
Here in 2014, we know the reality is very different.
Forrester Research predicts that 60% of all retail sales will involve some sort of online engagement by 2017. Ebay reports that that number has already reached 40%. Online and in-store experiences are increasingly becoming one and the same, and customer habits have evolved with them.
According to Google, today’s sophisticated consumers rely on self-guided research to inform purchase decisions. And not just for the purchase itself. Instead of consulting with a salesperson, they compare features across multiple sites and stores. Instead of relying on friends and neighbors, they seek the opinions of online reviewers and bloggers. And rather than inspecting an item in the real world, they evaluate products from every possible angle with 360 degree views and YouTube demonstrations. If “buying” is the process of making a purchase, and “shopping” is the process of determining value, customers have clearly demonstrated the ability and the desire to “shop” thoughtfully no matter where they happen to buy.
Yet many eCommerce sites are still hustling customers out the virtual door, striving to make the purchase process near instantaneous and adhering to the mantra that the best websites eliminate “distractions” (those pesky value propositions) and enable “one-click” purchasing.
While we do not believe eCommerce sites should be maze-like and require 17 clicks to purchase, eCommerce cannot remain about speed to purchase and price comparison. If it does, the brand is left competing on the only value proposition the consumer sees—price.
Amazon, a pioneer in the “speed-to-checkout” experience and the inventors of the “one-click purchase,” is the leader in this overly simple shopping approach. For many Amazon is the gold standard in savvy, discount shopping. But in 2012, Kantor Retail found that a basket of mixed items from Amazon was 20.5% more expensive than those bought at a Walmart store. What is Amazon offering that keeps customers coming back?
The answer is context. They’ve successfully added ratings, reviews, incredible logistics and other value-adds to the consumer experience, and they haven’t stopped improving and innovating (think #AmazonCart or AmazonFresh). As research-driven consumers search and explore across multiple devices, online retailers are able to gather a wealth of data that can provide insight as to who a target is and what they’re looking for, in far more ways than a sales associate at a brick and mortar store could ever imagine. But compiling data is the easy part. Employing that information successfully means actively participating in the shopping experience, collaborating side by side with your customers by creating contextually relevant content that they can interact with. The end goal is to not only build trust and position a brand as a valuable asset worth paying for, but to support and empower the decision-making of the consumer.
Savvy brands like Warby Parker, Kate Spade, Nikon, J.Crew and more reach out to consumers at every step of the decision-making process, chiming in with useful information that adds interest or value to the individual. This can encompass everything from demonstrating product features in a compelling way, to establishing a feedback loop, eliminating a logistical hurdle, or offering recommendations based on past purchases.
Warby Parker is a stellar example of a company that’s built a reputation delivering an eCommerce experience that is aligned with the shopping aspirations of its customers. It’s innovative try-before-you-buy mail-order model for prescription eyewear has become synonymous with its name, but the ‘Warby Parker experience’ also extends to the website itself. There, customers can upload a photo of themselves and use drag and drop tools to “try on” frames without ever waiting for the mailman.
Another boundary-pushing illustration is the joint venture last summer between Kate Spade Saturday and Ebay, who created a series of 24-hour, always-on “shoppable windows” where New Yorkers could order Kate Spade Saturday products from touch screen outside a pop-up window display. Shoppers could pay via Ebay’s Paypal, and have the goods delivered to any place in NYC within the hour. Kate Spade’s 5th Avenue location also recently launched a touch-screen enabled display table where shoppers could activate and engage with product-specific animations by interacting with the merchandise on the table. A dynamic way to bridging the gap between the physical and interactive space that also fosters a deeper connection to the brand.
For those fixated on speed to purchase and price comparison, it may be difficult to reconcile the time and expense of initiatives like these with the blunt effectiveness of a buy button on a homepage. And the truth is, those measures will work. For a while at least. But it is a shortsighted view of what I see as the limitless potential of eCommerce. And as Millennials raised on interactive technologies become experienced shoppers, it’s also a view whose days are numbered.
Technology is going to continue to evolve and improve, and the opportunities to speak directly to customers and become part of their unique shopping process will only grow as a result. It will undoubtedly take creativity and imagination to rise to these new occasions but earning consumer trust and loyalty in the long term will pay off in much more valuable ways than any one sale could garner.
Already, emerging technologies like the incredibly life-like Oculus Rift virtual reality system or the pharmaceutical drone delivery program announced by startup Quiqui are painting a tantalizing picture of what the future of online shopping might hold. It’s exciting to think about how simulating browsing or same-day unmanned delivery might push the shopping experience into a place none of us can imagine right now.
Ultimately, I believe the best ecommerce sites of the future will embrace the same optimism and energy as the technologies they harness, recognize the value of ‘shopping,’ and execute against fully integrated marketing strategies. Whether it’s with digital video or content or technology, the best will provide consumers compelling reasons to purchase at a price the brand’s value should still command.