Lauren Freedman

How site merchandising combines art and science

Lauren Freedman has been studying merchandising moves online since the dawn of the commercial Internet.

She launched her Chicago-based e-tailing group in 1993, a year before the founding of Netscape, widely seen as the browser that first brought the Web to the masses. And to this day, retailers look to the group’s work with partners like MarketLive to lay out their online strategies for the crucial holiday shopping season.

Freedman’s long-term perspective has left her with nothing but respect for site merchandisers, who sometimes toil anonymously, despite the impact their work has on a retailer’s bottom line.

Site merchandisers rule

“I like to say that merchants rule and that the merchandiser is an undervalued commodity,” Freedman says. “Basically, the knowledge that can come from understanding the merchandising should really be the driving force behind the business.”

I spoke to Freedman at last month’s Shop.org Digital Summit where she stopped to share her thoughts on site merchandising on video.

Site merchandisers figure out the most creative and profitable ways to display products on a retailer’s website and apps. They monitor performance and determine the right moves to make to boost sales and take advantage of opportunities an enterprise might be missing out on.

And yet, there is often a feeling that the role and the person doing it is misunderstood.

“I think they’re below the radar because good ones are hard to come by,” Freedman says of site merchandisers. “In order to be a good site merchant, it’s a bit of an art and a bit of a science. The question is, how do you balance that out. It’s not easy to have both types of personalities, that you can appreciate analytics, but still have the gut to hit the right items.”

Know the art; learn the science

While doing merchandising well requires a balance, Freedman said she’d lean toward someone who understands the art when looking for someone who’s likely to succeed at the tricky e-commerce alchemy that merchandising requires.

“I always just say to people, find someone who understands and appreciates shopping and how to buy and they’ll probably be able to think about that. And you can train them. You can’t train them for the art. You can train them for the science.”

The science end of merchandising is still focused on the types of things that retailers have focused on since the beginning of time: What’s selling? Why? What isn’t selling? And are there tangible steps to take to see that it does sell?

The tools, the data and analytic platforms that help retailers keep track of what’s selling, have, of course, changed dramatically. They can now provide powerful and instant signals about what’s working and what’s not.

“Retail is a now business and at the end of the day, you’re going to want to go after what’s hot,” Freedman says. “We always knew what was hot in retail, because we were on the selling floor. I remember when Swatch watches first  came out. I remember being at Bloomingdale’s on 59th Street. You stood there and you watched these watches just totally pouring out of the store. Again, there is no substitute for seeing it. It’s the same thing online. So the more you know, the better you can position the product that’s hot.”

Merchandising is data driven

Site merchandisers know a lot more today than they did at the dawn of e-commerce. Freedman describes early efforts as “people put up a handful of items and they tried to sell them.” Today site merchandisers use data tools to drive sales and build a better experience for shoppers.

“When I started out, there was no data,” says Freedman, who I spoke to last month at the Shop.org Digital Summit. “You just had to understand it. But I think having the data helps: What gets positioned where; What gets shown first. And then you can use it to your favor. Let’s say you have certain items that you know are newer, that you have greater margin on, you might be able to position those earlier on the site and have a more profitable experience.”

It’s the sort of work that can mean the difference between a successful holiday season online and a disappointing one. And it’s the sort of work that when done well, will no doubt get some of those toiling below the radar noticed.

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