Merchandisers’ tools don’t match their ambition: Part one of four

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Modern e-commerce site merchandisers are ready to combine their intuitive understanding of fashion, products and trends with the data-driven insights that increasingly are guiding business decisions.

But it isn’t easy. It turns out merchandisers today face a data gap — the very information they need is locked away in archaic systems that they can’t easily dive into without turning to professional analysts or spending precious hours sifting through numbers and noise in order to find meaningful data.

A commissioned survey, conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of BloomReach, brought to life and light the frustration endured by merchandising e-commerce professionals who feel personally responsible for building their brands, attracting new customers and fostering loyalty among existing ones.

Yes, merchandisers consider it part of their jobs to improve sales and profitability in the product categories they oversee and to build a better customer experience for those shoppers who come to their sites. But, according to Forrester, they know they don’t have the tools they need to get the job done.

“We’ve always been very eager to use a lot more data in the decisions that we make and the kind of measuring of results of actions that we take as a team,” said Phil Stocker, senior manager of site merchandising for home-goods seller Wayfair. “There wasn’t really a great way for us to have some go-to tools that would allow us to explore the data in a pretty fluid manner, in very quick ways as well.”

Wayfair, which is considered a leading light in e-commerce, recently changed its approach, arming its merchandisers with access to immediate digital insights. It’s the sort of information that will help them become a new breed of merchandiser, e-commerce experts that have the data they need to manage the digital experience of their customers.

(Note: Wayfair is a BloomReach Compass Merchandising customer.)

The change underscores the rise of merchandisers in online retail. In this, part one of a four-part series on the future of site merchandising, we look at the data and tools merchandisers need to reach their full potential.

As both consumers and e-commerce operations become more sophisticated, there is a growing need for experts who can see across departmental responsibilities and help unify the entire customer experience on a site and in stores.

Retailers that fail to build a unified customer experience across all the channels consumers use today, risk leaving potential customers frustrated and looking for a better experience elsewhere. TimeTrade, a company that helps consumers make appointments, found that while most retailers think they’re doing a good job providing a consistent experience for customers, few customers (26 percent) agree. In other words, retailers are making it harder to buy their products than it should be.

The Forrester work provides some guidance for retailers looking to improve that experience. First, it indicates that merchandisers have already assigned themselves a broad range of responsibilities — from increasing profits to improving the overall experience customers have while shopping.

More and more, they look at their jobs as work that requires a delicate balance of art and science. But they know the science can’t be properly practiced without the right data and the right tools to unlock it.

“When I started out, there was no data,” says Lauren Freedman, who worked as a merchant before launching the e-tailing group in 1993. “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 in your favor.”

For merchandisers, getting at the right data can be like trying to eat soup with a fork or spaghetti with a spoon, But the Forrester research clearly shows that merchandisers are hungry for the data they need to round out their expertise and their understanding of products and styles.

In particular, Forrester in February surveyed 100 North American merchandisers and 104 marketers at big e-commerce operations — those with at least 500 employees and e-commerce revenue of $10 million or more a year.

The merchandisers clearly felt they had influence over key marketing responsibilities.

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But that sense of responsibility leaves merchandisers in a tough spot. Fewer than two in five merchandisers told Forrester that they strongly agreed that they had access to customer data that would give them the sort of vision they need to make decisions regarding the products their companies sell. Beyond that, when asked about nine types of data tools, most merchandisers said the tools they had were not up to the task at hand.

That lack of insight has apparently led to a lack of respect for merchandisers among their marketing colleagues. Only 36 percent of marketers strongly believe merchandisers’ knowledge of products should be integrated with the marketers’ knowledge of customers. The marketers simply don’t believe that merchandisers have the data needed to help with attracting new customers or hanging on to existing ones.

Meanwhile, nearly 85 percent of merchandisers agree with the statement that their expertise should be part of the marketing mix, with 50 percent saying they feel strongly about the issue.

And it gets worse. The data gap has contributed to a disconnect between merchandisers and marketers in the same organizations. For starters, merchandisers and marketers in roughly equal numbers tend to agree that marketers and merchandisers are divided because they don’t have access to the same data — or if they do, they tend to use the same data in different ways.

But nearly 40 percent of the marketers surveyed believe that political and/or cultural challenges come between them and merchandisers, while only 25 percent of merchandisers see culture and politics as a problem.

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Instead, merchandisers say it’s a lack of data that has them guessing.

“A lot of our decisions were just kind of based on intuition,” said Lucy Astor, site merchandising manager at Wayfair, referring to the previous set of tools the retailer was using.

But now Wayfair’s merchandisers have the tools they need to fully contribute to building the home-furnishing retailer’s customer experience and helping boost the company’s revenue and profits.

In fact, the retailer’s new approach to using its data and technology has put its merchandisers in the ideal spot to be the team that works across all the old data silos. We’ll talk more about destroying silos and building a single view of vital data in the remaining posts in this series.

Photo by Mike Cassidy

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