The World of Online Retail: Navigating Increasingly Choppy Waters

There is no shying away from the fact that the high street has seen better days. UK shops are continuing to close – more than 1,200 last year, meaning more retailers are turning their focus to online. In the UK, e-commerce now accounts for more than a fifth of total retail sales, according to data from eMarketer, however nailing the experience is a major issue, with conversion rates 7x lower than brick and mortar counterparts. Getting digital rights requires focus and smart investments to be successful. A recent report on M&S outlines changes to the way in which it ‘does digital’ to try and attract, engage and convert more shoppers, with the expectation that a third of all its Sales will come from online in the next five years. What does this news tell us about the state of the wider industry?

Understanding the Customer

In a world of unparalleled noise and choice, customers want to feel understood. The latest research shows that almost three-quarters of us have admitted to being influenced in a purchasing decision simply because we feel ‘understood’. This feeling is easier to produce in-store with empathetic Sales reps, but on digital channels where customer experience is built to scale, ‘feeling understood’ is not typically a priority.

Customers do expect more though – 66% of customers expect brands and retailers to guide and assist them better, to find the right product. But, before you assist customers you need to fundamentally learn how to understand what they’re looking for, what their preferences and needs are and how they speak. Not only does this help increase engagement and conversion at a 1:1 level, but at scale, it allows businesses to gather critical insights behind simple Sales performance to uncover buyer personas and product preferences, which can inform your Sales and Marketing strategy and R&D and NPD.

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Overcoming Choice Overload

It’s no surprise that customers need help narrowing down their choices to avoid ‘choice overload’. In fact, more than half of us have abandoned a website because it was too difficult to find the right product. And, 71% have switched to a competitor that provides an easier search experience. Most businesses today tackle some of this, but not to its full potential. Much more investment and focus are needed to enhance the search experience and overcoming choice overload.

The bottom line is that any business that is serious about growing online sales needs to address the choice overload phenomenon. Consumers crave (and demand) assistance and guidance on digital channels, to promote purchase confidence and with so many options on offer there is very little room for mistakes.

What a ‘Digital-First’ Strategy Actually Means

As M&S has identified, a ‘digital-first’ strategy is not just about ‘traffic acquisition– a mistake made by many brands and retailers. Solving fundamental problems that online shoppers face is the biggest way to grow sales and market share – problems like choice overload. The recent changes announced by M&S highlights the need to enhance the search experience. Most brands and retailers still rely on outdated keyword-based search experiences, expecting consumers to type in ‘laptops’ for example, then self-navigate through hundreds of options, making sense of product specs to find the perfect one. It’s no surprise that 71% of consumers admit to abandoning a purchase like this in favor of a competitor who makes the experience simpler.

The internet has gone from a place where people want to research to a transactional model, as the rise of e-commerce shows. Even Google has recognized the change in how people navigate the online world and search for products. Businesses need to leverage different search capabilities to tackle the challenges shoppers face in light of these behavioral changes and evolution.

Introducing search experiences that are conversational, businesses not only get to understand their customers at scale and on digital channels, the result is an experience that is truly personalized, adds value and offers guidance and convenience, increase engagement and conversion.

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Conversion Through Conversation

One of the weaknesses M&S identified was low conversion rates, despite strong growth in mobile traffic and paid search. Notwithstanding other variables that can account for this challenge, such as availability issues and product mix, poor conversion can be addressed through AI Conversational Search. If shoppers are ‘high-intent’, and their needs are met without friction, they’re very likely to convert. Businesses need to learn how to optimize the experience of these shoppers. That starts, first, with identifying those with high intent, then understanding what they are looking for and why. Only then can you deliver a fast, friction-free experience. Doing this at scale and across all your digital channels is possible with the right technology. Marketers and eCommerce leaders need to start a conversation – one that engages with consumers on a fundamentally human and personal level, those that do will see double-digit sales growth.

‘Digital-first’ begins with accepting that any online strategy is not about acquisition, it’s about transforming the experience for the good of the customer. This goes further than increasing Sales. It begins with understanding the customer at a deep level, building trust, engaging them in conversation, and helping them find the perfect products for their needs. Enhanced customer experience is the anchor of Digital Transformation. Without this anchor, businesses will struggle to be successful in the world of online retail. M&S understands this and is looking to get closer to its customers, becoming more relevant to them, and making their online shopping journeys easier.

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