shopping sign

E-commerce sites could learn a lot from personal shoppers

Retailers scrambling to weave more meaningful search and personalization experiences into their websites could do worse than sitting down for a chat with Carol Rosenblatt and Amanda Castro.

They are not retail consultants, algorithm wizards or marketing gurus. They are personal stylists, or personal shoppers if you will, who understand consumers, their desires, motivations and anxieties better than many who make it their business to crack the code of the customer.

Rosenblatt, founder of Mrs. R. consults in Hillsborough, Calif., and Castro, owner of Beyond Black in San Francisco, listen and learn from their clients; they recognize, remember and understand. In the end, they get the job done without wasting the valuable time of those who simply want to find what it is that suits them.

In short, they are the protoplasm version of the technological ideal of every e-commerce enterprise: They absolutely nail one-to-one personalization and are able to return relevant search results to customers almost immediately.

“It’s one-on-one,” Rosenblatt says of her modus operandi with clients. “I try to get an idea of what they’re looking for; their expectations; what their needs are. And it can vary by client.”

Rosenblatt captionAnd then, for a fee, they lead a shopping excursion to deliver on the promise of a new and better personal style.

“They don’t have to look for anything,” says Castro, who explains she lays out clothes at the store for clients based on a wardrobe review and an in-depth conversation.  “They just have to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to these things.”

And with each “yes” and each “no,” she learns and knows what styles and cuts to find more of, what colors are pleasing, what looks are simply non-starters.

“With some people, they know fashion isn’t their strength. They feel overwhelmed when they go shopping and they give up,” says Rosenblatt, who spent 30 years in retail as a manager, buyer and consultant. “It’s very important to listen and empathize with what they feel is their shortfall and try to minimize that and make them feel better than they’ve ever felt before.”

And who doesn’t want their customers to feel better than they’ve ever felt before — whether they are shopping in-store or online.

Now, nobody (not me, anyway) is saying the answer for online retailers is to hire an army of personal shoppers to guide the digital masses through each shopping excursion. And no one is saying that machines can provide the same intimate experience that a personal shopper literally sifting through your wardrobe can give. But the technology, backed by big data and machine learning, is better than ever at fine-tuning search and providing personalized results that help consumers find exactly what they are looking for.

And in talking to Rosenblatt and Castro, it became apparent to me that the two women have down pat the guiding principles for how to help customers discover the items they’re looking for — whether they’re strolling store aisles or browsing websites and apps.

In fact, I’ve listed seven lessons for e-commerce retailers from personal shoppers (and their clients) here to get the conversation started.

And what will online retailers get for their efforts to improve search and personalization in the tradition of Rosenblatt and Castro? First, the dry statistics: Michael Hendron, a strategic management professor at Brigham Young University, has spent a lot of time studying the advantages of effective site search on e-commerce sites.

Hendron writes in Wired that customers who make use of a website’s onsite search box are a retailer’s best customers. A few of Hendron’s conclusions:  Those actually buying are 90 percent more likely to use site search than those just browsing. Customers who search successfully are twice as likely to actually buy on a retailer’s site.

And BloomReach’s own data shows that about 15 percent of visitors use the site search feature whether they are using their mobile devices or computers. But those visitors account for about 45 percent of total revenue, which reinforces the importance of customers who use site search.

The bad news? Those who have a bad experience with site search — perhaps because they describe products in ways the retailer doesn’t — get frustrated easily. Only 50 percent of customers using site search actually find what they’re looking for, Hendron writes. And those who get no hits when they search are three times more likely than others to immediately leave the site.

AmandaCaption

So naturally, smart retailers are interested in doing whatever it takes to build topflite site search and personalization features, features that will at least approximate the results that Rosenblatt and Castro’s high-touch approach yields.

I’ll let Polly Boroco speak to those results. Boroco turned to Castro after her partner mentioned that, ahem, mixing it up a little wouldn’t be the end of the world.

“My girlfriend noticed that I kept wearing the same uniform of black shirt and blue jeans every day and thought that I could use a little style help,” says Boroco, 42, of San Francisco. “And I kind of thought that, too.”

But shopping? Ugg.

“Going into the mall, it’s like going into a casino,” says Boroco, a pet adoption matchmaker at the San Francisco SPCA. “It sucks the life out of you.”

Then again, having a personal guide to help you search? It makes all the difference.

“She was really cool, very down to earth and personable and made me feel at ease,” Boroco says of Castro,  who studied apparel  design and merchandising before working in retail. “I was like, ‘Wow. That was cool. I don’t have to worry about any of this.’”

In fact, after getting together and going shopping, Boroco now considers Castro a friend — a friend who apparently really gets her.

“I ended up buying most of the things that she picked out,” Boroco says of the excursion. “Only a handful of things were thumbs down. I was pretty impressed that she nailed it.”

Photo of Amanda Castro by Patrick Roddie courtesy of Amanda Castro; photo of Carol Rosenblatt courtesy of Carol Rosenblatt.

Photo of shopping sign by Howard Lake published under Creative Commons license.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Reach him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com and follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.