Giants Dugout shoppers

Datacember 3: How retailers and BloomReach stand up to retail’s 100-year flood

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Have you hugged a retail professional today?

It’s the one group that looks forward to the holiday season with greater intensity than a room full of second-graders. But for the retailers and those who work with them, there is a lot more at stake than whether or not that Nintendo NES Classic is going to be under the tree on Christmas morning.

The National Retail Federation says U.S. consumers will spend $655.8 billion this holiday season, an increase of 3.6 percent over last year. The other statistical hit parade is well known: Many retailers see 30 percent of their revenue and 40 percent of their profit during the last quarter of the year.

About half of all toys sold in any given year are sold during the holiday period, The Wall Street Journal reports.

In other words, it’s a big deal.

“There is just a higher sense of urgency, because each day, from a volume perspective, is bigger,”  Jane Feller, a senior buyer at home and decor retailer Bellacor, told me when we spoke last holiday season. “We have to make sure we get it right during the holiday.”

And so retailers, and the companies that support them, gear up. Holiday planning is like planning for the 100-year flood, and by early November it’s raining hard.

This year, the announcements came fast and furious: Macy’s would add 83,000 temporary workers to its payroll; Target was going for 70,000 and Kohl’s would recruit 60,000 seasonal employees, the Washington Post reports. Amazon planned to add at least 100,000 workers, up from 80,000 last year.

The reinforcements don’t stop in the store aisles. Target said it would add 7,500 e-commerce warehouse workers, the Post says. FedEx, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service all planned to bring on many tens of thousands of workers to keep packages moving.

And technology companies — such as BloomReach, which uses mounds of data, machine learning and natural language processing to help retailers sell products — switch into overdrive.

BloomReach, for instance, has run drills to prepare for any unforeseen glitches. It’s built a notification and response system that ensures that any impending problems could be tackled quickly. It has provisioned its data gathering and processing infrastructure to handle dramatic spikes without degrading performance. It has torture tested the loads that its servers and cloud systems can bear; and it has looked to its successes in holiday seasons past in preparation for the biggest test of the year.

Anyone working in the retail sector knows that while providing a superior customer experience is always important, the job takes on an added urgency during the holiday shopping season. Retailers will encounter shoppers intent on finding just the right gift. Some will be feeling the stress of the season. Some retailers will see customers for the first time. For them, holiday shopping becomes the proverbial one chance to make a first impression.

“So on a one-to-one basis with each customer, it’s making sure that you meet those customer expectations and that you’re not losing customers,” Jeffrey Kowalkoski, a site planning manager at Bellacor, told me in the run-up to holiday last year. “You have to try your best to make that experience for them the best that they could possibly have, so they’ll come back and shop your site again.”

BloomReach data provides a vivid illustration of the increased traffic that the holiday season brings to retailers and those who work with them. Traffic to BloomReach servers from customers increased as the traditional kickoff of the holiday shopping season approached. Server calls for one BloomReach product alone had climbed nearly 50 percent in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. By Cyber Monday, traffic had spiked by more than 76 percent.

Looking at the broadest measure of traffic (server calls across the range of BloomReach products) confirms that holiday-traffic increases were common throughout November. But, the boosts really kicked in on Thanksgiving Day, which saw traffic reach a peak 140 percent higher than the peak of a more typical day in late October.

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Traffic was up another 8.4 percent on Black Friday over Thanksgiving. And by Cyber Monday, peak traffic was 36 percent higher than on Black Friday and was more than triple that more typical peak of late October.

“And we didn’t even blink,” said Jurgen Philippaerts, a BloomReach technical staff member.

In fact, the traditional opening of the holiday shopping rush went exceedingly well for BloomReach, with no significant slowdowns or glitches. Which, of course, is a very good sign for the coming weeks of a holiday season that will continue to produce peaks and valleys of traffic on the web and in brick-and-mortar stores.

The problem-free start to the season is also another reason to find your retail hero and offer him or her a hug.

Photo by Mike Cassidy.

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

danchesterforesee

Video: Don’t underwhelm digital shoppers with a lousy customer experience

Everybody knows that delivering a memorable customer experience has gotten a lot harder in the era of the alway-on, mobile consumer.

Customers move from device to device, creating a customer journey that looks more like a plate of spaghetti than a straight path to purchase.

Dan Chester, vice president of retail sales at Foresee, a customer experience analytics company, says every contact between a customer and a retailer needs to be measured and assessed. Chester took time out from his schedule at the Shop.org Retail’s Digital Summit to talk to us about the danger of “underwhelming” your customers.

This is the third of our three-part video series on customer experience, but there are more videos on more subjects still to come.

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

Ann Ruckstuhl

Video: Website performance — where seconds turn into millions

There is no faster way to drive a customer crazy than to offer up a website that runs slower than the security line at your favorite airport.

Video: How to stand out with customer experience

But do you know who a slow website should really drive crazy? Enterprises that count on a creaky digital platform to deliver sales. Ann Ruckstuhl, of SOASTA, says that seconds mean dollars — big bucks, in fact — in the digital world.

Site performance isn’t the sexiest aspect of the customer experience. But Ruckstuhl, CMO of the Silicon Valley company that measures and improves digital performance, can drop some numbers on you that are bound to get your attention.

We caught up with Ruckstuhl at Shop.org, where she ran down some specific stats, including the math on Walmart’s $250 million site-speed revelation.

This is the second in a series of videos with thought leaders who attended the Shop.org Retail’s Digital Summit in Dallas. Stayed tuned for more in the series.

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

 

patricia-waldron

Video: Retailers fail to deliver on customer experience

It turns out that modern consumers have become very tough customers.

Armed with smartphones and high expectations, shoppers are no longer hunting only for products. They are also paying careful attention to the experience that comes along with the effort of finding what they want.

At the Shop.org Retail’s Digital Summit 2016, customer experience was among the topics that seemed to be everywhere.

We caught up with Patricia V. Waldron, a global marketing director for IBM, at the summit, who  shared her thoughts about customer experience in this video. One key takeaway: IBM’s research shows that only 40 percent of consumers globally believe that retailers are providing them with the kind of customer experience that they deserve.

And yes, Waldron has some thoughts about what retailers can do to move that number higher.

This is the first in a series of videos with thought leaders attending Shop.org. Stay tuned for more in the series.

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

reporters-notebooks

e.l.f. unicorn; Macy’s freshens up; Amazon hot seat: The BloomReach Relevance Report

The BRRR goes semi-three-dot this week: Three meaty morsels, so rich you’ll want to eat them with a fork. But use a spoon, so you don’t miss a drop.

What color is your unicorn?

makeup

It’s not every day that you get a unicorn story in retail. In fact the financial news in retail  has been a bit dour these days.

But here comes e.l.f. Beauty pulling off a fabulous initial stock offering, its stock rocketing up 56 percent in its first day of trading, according to Fox Business.  e.l.f., which stands for eyes, lips and face, has been around for a dozen years, but the BRRR must admit it only recently became familiar with the company.

Perhaps, it’s because we just rely on our natural beauty, though, admittedly, a little face powder would do us a world of good.

At any rate, e.l.f.’s IPO and its first-day closing price of $26.50, values the company $1.18 billion, according to The Wall Street Journal, putting the cosmetic company in official unicorn territory.

The company, with nearly $100 million in sales during the first half of the year, has an intriguing business model that could certainly be a chapter in the omnichannel playbook. It offers most of its products — lipstick, eyeliner, face-care potions etc. — for less than $6 each, the WSJ says.

It’s a big hit with millennials, Fox says, the millennials who are leading the charge of reshaping consumer behavior. e.l.f. sells online and in 19,000 retail stores, including Target, Walmart, Ulta, Old Navy, CVS and the Gap.

The company also runs nine of its own stores in New York City and its surroundings. Company executives say they intend to expand their brick-and-mortar operation to high-traffic areas across the nation.

When you think of Sephora, Birchbox, Ulta and all the old-school cosmetics companies, it seems like a pretty crowded field, but e.l.f.’s revenues have been on a healthy trajectory. Fox notes that the company’s $96.8 million in first-half revenue this year is up from $75.2 in the same period of 2015.

So maybe this unicorn isn’t so mythical.

Sure, Amazon helps you find stuff, but … 

amazonbox

Amazon is taking some grief after ProPublica conducted a huge experiment to figure out whether Amazon’s search results favored, well, Amazon.

The watchdog publication concluded that Amazon’s algorithms did indeed tilt the playing field to the starship in Seattle. In particular, ProPublica concluded, Amazon’s algos present shoppers with products it is selling, even when other Amazon-based vendors offered the same thing at a lower price. Here’s a condensed version of the story, produced by The Mercury News.

ProPublica monitored 250 frequently purchased products on Amazon for weeks, the Merc said, to see what showed up in the “buy box,” Amazon’s suggestion to searchers. About 75 percent of the time, products Amazon was selling directly or products being sold by vendors who were paying Amazon for services, showed up  in better positions than product offered by third-party sellers — even when the third-party price was lower.

Scandalous, right? Well, this is where things get tricky. It seems shipping costs played a significant role in pricing differences — and as Amazon pointed out, shipping costs are irrelevant to a large bucket of its customers. Amazon Prime members can order a staggering number of items that come with free shipping.

Still, there are some larger points here. First, it’s wise to keep an eye on how Amazon steers consumers to products for the simple reason that a plurality of online shoppers turn to Amazon first when shopping online. A year ago, Survata, in a survey commissioned by BloomReach, found that 44 percent of shoppers head to Amazon first, when looking for or researching a product.

That compares to 34 percent who use search engines first and 21 percent who initially go to a retailer’s site.

The other point the ProPublica story brings up is that consumers love Amazon. If you read the reader comments that follow the reports on ProPublica and the Merc’s site, you’ll see a portion that appear to argue that the headline of the story should have been, “Duh.”

They’ve got no problem with a company pushing its own interests. And they point out that there are ways to broadly compare prices no matter the suggestions Amazon makes. Consider this comment from cosmicunity on the Merc’s story (edited for clarity):

“I know sometimes I can get a product I see on Amazon locally for cheaper. But unless we’re talking 20 to 30 percent cheaper, for a fairly costly item, I usually don’t anyway. I am a Prime member and that $100 a year is well worth it. Usually always buy a Prime item, even if it’s a little costlier. Free two/three day shipping. Also, their return policy is the best I have ever seen. Many times I have told them I am dissatisfied with a product and they refund me, while also telling me to keep it. That doesn’t happen at any big box or mom and pop place that I know of.

Not that the Amazon love is unanimous. This, from GSGregory on the ProPublica piece — and in response to a post arguing that consumers can do the math to figure out how shipping costs affect the total they will have to pay. Again, edited for clarity:

“So showing customers a list labeled as price+ shipping, but showing certain items as only price, is not lying? If you went to Walmart and all non-Walmart brands were shown with the tax included and all Walmart brands were shown on the shelf at a non-taxed price, would you consider that fair business?

The people have spoken.

Macy’s pretties itself up to boost customer experience

macys-union-square

Speaking of beauty, which we were in item No. 1, get this: Macy’s is turning to the Uber of beauty to diversify its business and boost its customer experience.

Reuters reports that the iconic retailer is partnering with beGlammed, which offers house calls for makeup and grooming services. It’s part of a strategy to focus on beauty products to slow the slide in sales.

The wire service points out that JCPenney has had success placing Sephora counters within its stores. The Macy’s deal means customers can go online and order up a bridal makeup job or other beautification project, ranging in cost from $25 to $185.

Macy’s is moving big-time into the beauty sector, Reuters reports, having purchased Bluemercury in 2015. The beauty move comes in addition to store-in-store plays with Best Buy and the announcement that Macy’s will open an Apple store within its iconic 34th Street Macy’s in Manhattan.

Quote of the week

“Results showed that customers want a shopping experience that is easier and more personal and products within the stores to match, including more in-store assistance and customized services.” — Marc Ehle, Office Depot senior vice president of North America retail sales, to the Reno Gazette-Journal, on the occasion of the opening of the “store of the future.”

Photo of mascara by Jenn Durfey published under Creative Commons license. Other photos by Mike Cassidy.

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

in the blender

“Customer experience”: What does that even mean?

 

We stand at a pivotal moment in history. Starting now, we have the opportunity to shape a vision for generations. The moment is fleeting.

Soon, the phrase “customer experience” will tumble into the smothering morass that has consumed “customer journey,” “omnichannel retail” and “mobile first” and turned the words into quivering masses of meaninglessness.

OK, so maybe we’re not exactly facing armageddon. I mean, this is shopping we’re talking about. But a lot of people have a lot riding on getting shopping right — not the least of whom are consumers.

If you’re in retail or follow the industry, “customer experience” is everywhere. My in-box — and I bet yours — has been bombarded with reports, studies and news stories about the embrace of achieving the ultimate customer experience.

eMarketer recently released research that found that nearly 90 percent of e-commerce executives believe that improving customer experience is fundamental to the future success of their businesses. The survey, conducted by consultants The Storytellers, also found that 82 percent of the executives said a better experience would increase returns on investment, while two-thirds said improving the customer experience would lead to “greatly increased profits.”

The barrage has all the earmarks of the buzzword syndrome. Well-meaning marketers come up with phrases that sound good and are vaguely descriptive. But soon, like barnacles, the phrases become attached to anything that moves. The words pretty quickly lose any specific meaning and become a sort of “the dog ate my homework” response to retail’s challenges.

Foot traffic down? Not to worry. We’re working on an omnichannel strategy. Desktop traffic skidding? We’re on it. It’s all part of the changing customer journey. Smartphone traffic is spiking wildly, but sales on mobile phones are lagging? Chill. It’s step one of our mobile-first strategy.

Customer experience is often pureed in the Vague-O-Matic

Let’s not throw “customer experience” into that same Vague-O-Matic. The way to save customer experience as a concept is by defining it. Or more accurately, by understanding that customer experience is a lot of different things and when we talk about it, we should be clear about which parts we’re talking about.

The way I see it, customer experience is about data, emotion, economics, visual cues, nostalgia, supply, demand, fashion, pop culture, aspiration, personal finance, self-image, desire and restraint. It’s a classic mix of art and science.

But underneath all that, customer experience comes down to three broad categories. (I admit that I fought the urge to write, “customer experience falls into three buckets.” This buzz word syndrome is powerful, my friends.)

Here’s a framework for thinking about customer experience

And yes, the boundaries among the three categories blur in places. They sometimes work in tandem and sometimes sequentially to form a marketing funnel. That said, I’m going with:

The aesthetic customer experience: This is the art, and very much the world of merchandisers, though everyone needs to play a part. This is right-brain stuff, the poetry the soul of retailing. The aesthetic customer experience is all about understanding your customers and showing them you know them through the story your brand tells. It’s about relating to those who visit your sites through text and video and photographs — and by grouping and arranging products in an eye-catching and mind-pleasing way. It’s about building online pages that help consumers understand what they’re getting and how it will affect their lives. It’s about building a site that is pretty, with well-crafted writing and gorgeous photographs. The aesthetic experience is understanding what your customers mean to you and what you mean to your customers. It’s anticipating what the cool kids will be wearing or using and how products intersect with pop culture, social sets and world events. It’s about inspiration and communication. It’s about being authentic.

The logistic customer experience: This is the science. This is where data and technology come in most prominently. Combining data and technology allows retailers to achieve another buzz phrase: “getting the right product in front of the right customer at the right time.” In short, it’s about relevance and personalization. It’s about presenting each individual shopper with a visual array of products, sorted in a way that shows the site understands that particular customer’s style, tastes and preferences. The logistic customer experience makes a customer’s visit worthwhile and not a waste of time. It’s about getting digital checkout right and making sure pages featuring your products and non-product content load quickly. It’s about relying on systems that constantly learn and take the manual work out of presenting your best store to each individual online visitor. It’s about using technology that helps you spot places where what you’ve built and how consumers shop don’t match. It’s about telling a shopper you understand them, what they like and what they’re after. It’s about being able to tell the customer what’s in-stock and how to get what’s not in stock. It’s providing a way to pickup online orders at a store or have an in-store purchase delivered to a home. And if something is not right, it’s about offering an easy way to return an item by mail, delivery service or in a store. It’s being able to tell digital shoppers when they’ll get what they’ve ordered — and the ability to deliver on that promise.

The transactional customer experience: This is the most crass and brutal branch of the experience. The transactional customer experience is all about pricing, promotions and literally delivering the goods. It’s the slice of experience that acknowledges that while customer experience can’t be only about the transaction, in the end, both the consumer and the retailer see a transaction as the goal. And, so yeah, it’s important. This is where the art of the deal lives. Consumers expect to be treated fairly. They want to trust the retailer they’re doing business with. If they see a price online, they expect to be able get that price in the store. In fact, consumers want a good value. Shoppers have come to expect low, low prices. Parents in a recent survey indicated that price was even more important that quality when it comes to back-to-school items. But the discount game is a dangerous one for retailers. Constantly slashing prices obviously cuts into profit margins. It’s also hard to beat Amazon on price, which brings us back to experience. No question, retailers need to pay attention to the transactional customer experience. But the way to win against Amazon is to pick the right spots in which to excel in the arenas of aesthetic and logistic customer experience.

There is no doubt that “customer experience,” as a phrase and an imperative, is with us for the long-haul. That’s a good thing. It’s a clear sign that e-commerce has reached a tipping point. Consumers can go online and, to varying degrees, find what they’re looking for and buy those things.

The backstage machinery to handle the basics is up and running. The stakes are higher now. Consumers expect much more than the basics.

Now comes the time to make digital shopping more than a transaction. Now comes the time to make e-commerce an experience, a remarkable and memorable experience — the kind of experience, most importantly, that consumers can barely resist repeating.

Blender photo by Paul Bailey, published under Creative Commons license.

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

 

product search engine story

What you need to know about product search engines and why it matters

Product search engines allow searchers to find products offered by online merchants. And while product search engines have a specific mission, the challenges they face are similar to those faced by web search engines.

For instance, those who design product engines must return the best set of results they possibly can for a search query, ordered by relevance. The quality of a search engine is evaluated by using HRS (Human Relevance System) and user-engagement metrics like click-through rate, last-click rate, first-click rate, abandonment rate etc.

The same metrics are used by other vertical engines, like job search engines, image search engines, local search engines etc. In this write up, I want to share how building a product search engine is unique.

From a consumer standpoint, the important metrics around product search engines are similar to the important metrics for most vertical search engines and web search engines:

  • HRS based metrics like NDCG, DCG, Win-Loss Ratio.
  • Click-through rate (clicks/visit), conversion rate (views/visit).

From a merchant perspective, we consider different metrics — like revenue per visit (RPV), revenue per search session (RPS), margin per visit (MPV) and also search participation rate (searches/visit). The more revenue the user brings in and the more engaged the user is, the better for the merchant.

As we know most search engines use multiple signals, which they eventually combine with a machine-learning/hand-tuned model. While the models are important, the set of features the models use to rank results is equally as important. But what are some of the features that are unique to an e-commerce search engine?

Product and Attribute Understanding

Most web search engines use syntactical features/matching algorithms like BM25F /TF-IDF and other N-gram matching features. Product search is an area where we need to understand products and attributes in depth.

Wilson 4-Drawer Filing Cabinet Black

file cabinet

Brand: Wilson

Type: 4-Drawer

Product Type: File Cabinet

Color: Black

The understanding of these features helps us do matching better. This understanding also helps us to get into semantic understanding of queries and matching. Having a strong attribute-extraction algorithm helps here.

 

Query Understanding

This is another area, which goes hand-in-hand with the product understanding. Annotating queries into understandable attributes helps us substantially in semantic matching of products.

“wilson 4-drawer filing cabinet”

Brand: Wilson

Type: 4-Drawer

Product Type: File Cabinet

Color: Black

Query understanding also involves understanding synonyms — in this case understanding that a “file cabinet” is the same as a “filing cabinet.” Similar to web search engines, stemming, autocorrect, related searches are areas to understand as well.

Autosuggest or Guided Search

auto-suggest

Users often need help on what they need to find — so guiding users with autosuggest can help with search participation rate. From a product search perspective, we can funnel the users to the queries which bring in the most revenue or are most likely to increase the merchant’s revenue.  

Inventory Optimization

Inventory and availability are very important signals we need to understand in a product search engine. A product which has sold out or is not available in most popular sizes is not something which want to show to a customer.

Product Performance Data

Unlike web search engines — which use the number of clicks, last clicks, first clicks, click-through rate etc., — we can use the revenue contributed by the product and the propensity of a user to interact with the product, including cart additions, to assess product performance.

Shipping Consideration

As users, we often want to buy the products that have the fastest ship times/best supplier. (For example, on Amazon Prime users often go for Prime products because they have faster and more reliable shipping.)
Screen Shot 2016-07-19 at 4.40.53 PM

Facet Quality

Facets are a very important part of product search engines. They help users narrow down the set of choices they can make. When we have thousands of choices, the right set of facets and the right ordering of facets makes a big difference.

Personalization

Shopping search is definitely one of the verticals where personalization has a huge impact. For example, deep personalization based on gender preferences is something that can dramatically influence results. And when it comes to  B-to-B merchants, personalization is key, given how widely the buying patterns of different accounts vary.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of features that we can optimize to build a better product search engine. But taken together they provide a good flavor of some of the unique considerations for building a high-quality product search engine.

Cover photo of search sign by Pleuntje published under Creative Commons license. Screenshots from Wayfair and Amazon.

Ramkumar Rajendran is a Director of  Engineering at Bloomreach

 

Shelley1

Video: Brick-and-mortar retail isn’t all about foot traffic

Shelley Kohan, of RetailNext, has some surprising observations about the brick-and-mortar retail world, given all the talk about falling foot traffic in physical stores.

In our latest edition of BloomReach University, Video Campus, Kohan also explains why retailers need to keep e-commerce and digital shopping in mind, even as they work on their in-store experiences.

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

Shelley1

Video: Have you considered the different timeframes for measurement?

Shelley Kohan, of in-store analytics company RetailNext, says it’s important for retailers to consider three approaches to measurement and to match the right approach with the question that they’re trying to answer.

In our latest installment of BloomReach University, Video Campus, Kohan defines “quick action,” “test and measure” and “long-term” testing windows and provides some examples of when each makes sense.

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

AppleStore2

Apple’s brick-and-mortar (or glass and wood) strategy holds lessons for online retailers

So, in reading about Carmine Gallo and his analysis of the genius (if you will) of the Apple Store, I couldn’t help but notice that the secrets of success for the iconic gadget store are not that different from the strategies that digital retailers should embrace as they shoot for the same sort of success that Apple has scored.

“The Apple experience,” Gallo tells the San Jose Mercury News, “above all, is about enriching lives.”

OK, it’s the kind of marketing-speak that can induce eye-rolling. (Reminiscent, even, of the running gag on HBO’s “Silicon Valley.”) But Gallo, author of “The Apple Experience: Secrets to Building Insanely Great Customer Experience,” has a bigger point: The most effective selling doesn’t look or feel like selling. The most effective selling results from building an experience; an experience that’s memorable because it’s pleasant, fulfilling, efficient, useful or relevant — or maybe all of those things.

AppleBook

The message from Apple to its store associates, Gallo tells the Mercury, is: “Stop selling stuff and start enriching people’s lives. And when you do that, the experience is much different than you get anywhere else.”

Sounds like a key take-away. (One other key moment in the Merc report that I can’t resist mentioning: Look for the part where Gallo and reporter Patrick May are booted from the Apple Store because interviews aren’t allowed there, even between two consenting adults, neither of whom work at the store. Decidedly un-enriching.)

The online corollary to Apple’s in-store strategy can be seen in all the talk about moving away from counting clicks and the “click Web” in favor of a moving toward engaging consumers and  the “attention Web.” They are concepts that DebShops’ David Cost talked about last winter and that Charbeat’s Tony Haile created some buzz around this spring when he wrote about the attention Web.

Michael Maoz, a Gartner analyst, said in May that retailers, both online and in-store, should be giving customers a “concierge” experience. Consumers are providing retailers with more information about their needs, desires and intent than they ever have before. In return, they expect retailers to help them find the product or service that solves the problem they need solved when they need it solved.

Applestore1

“We’re going to help you with your customer journey,” Maoz says is the message retailers need to be sending. “We’re going to help you move from one thing to another; help you do something you didn’t know you needed to do, but I did, looking at big data, for example.”

It sounds a lot like what Gallo is talking about in the Merc Q &A when he breaks down the playbook that every Apple store employee learns. Apple associates are are taught to take a personalized approach, greeting customers and connecting over, say, a sports team whose logo the customer is wearing. They are to politely probe, “to understand the customer’s needs.” Then of course, they are to provide a solution, preferably a solution the customer can buy on the spot.

Creating a personalized experience, understanding a consumer’s intent and being able to offer relevant recommendations? It sounds like a winning combination — whether you are selling goods in a sleek brick-and-mortar store (or in the case of Apple, wood and glass store) or on a top-flight e-commerce platform.

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

 

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.

 

Mobile Shopping

Six Responsive Design Questions Answered

Responsive Design was in the hotseat at Mobile Commerce Summit yesterday with Marriott’s Jim Abramson and Yum! Restaurants’ Sunil Patel sharing their insights. Here are the 6 questions that really struck a chord with the audience:

1) What drives a choice to build a responsive design mobile site?

For both Marriott and Yum! it became very cost prohibitive to have two code bases and to implement and test new features on both. Responsive design ensures that features and content are implemented once and available across all devices.

2) Does the entire site need to be responsive or can you do it in parts?

You have to do it in parts. Marriott realized they needed to do a content audit and identify the highest priority areas of the site for responsive, the areas that could be responsive and the areas that could be retired.

3) What did you learn about implementing the responsive design project?

Images are a big deal – legacy images may not be scalable and you will need to audit your image library to ensure the images are responsive. Additionally, the header and footer are a tough item to navigate because no one owns them yet everyone cares – especially when you have to decide what navigation disappears in the smaller devices “response”.

Both Jim and Sunil learned that they needed people familiar with CSS3, HTML5 and analytics – and people who were experienced building transactional, e-commerce responsive sites.

4) How do you get internal support for a responsive design initiative?

It’s difficult because you invest a great deal of time and resources to have a result that doesn’t LOOK any different from what you had. It’s an investment towards supporting the future and being flexible for all the possible ways of interacting – like wearables, Google Glass or other things we cannot yet imagine.

5) What happens to the mobile team?

They become the mobile experts across the organization and integrate with every other team.

6) How do you make each experience relevant to the customer with responsive design?

This is the big problem. Once the site is responsive, you still need to create ways to deliver the right experience for the different use cases. In fact, its unlikely that responsive sites will perform better than dedicated mobile experiences until real-time data is driving the experience delivered to each visitor on each device and channel. And that’s a big challenge for 2014.

To learn more about mobile optimization, read our Responsive Experiences ebook.

iphone arts crafts - lornawatt

Are you doing enough for Mobile Moms?

iphone arts crafts - lornawattIf mobile is indeed the glue that holds all of a retailer’s channels together, then moms are using that same smartphone glue to keep their busy lives and families running smoothly. According to eMarketer, mothers are increasingly using smartphones for everything – saving time to killing time and everything in between. A few of the key points from eMarketer’s research:

More moms are always mobile – 90% reported that they have their phone with them in stores, the car, at home in front of the TV, in the kitchen and in bed.

Moms are mobile first – 70% said that if forced to choose, they would keep their smartphone and ditch their tablets and laptops.

Moms do it all – Over half of those surveyed use their smartphone for nearly every activity the survey asked about, from shopping to socializing.

This obviously provides great opportunities for mobile sites and apps that help these busy moms (remember, 70% of US moms work outside of the home) be more productive. But the savvier they get, the less they’ll put up with poor mobile experiences. Any brand or retailer looking to cultivate a loyal, lasting relationship with mothers would be well advised to focus on creating a great mobile experience.

So, what does a mother want in her mobile experience? Well, I’m not a mother, but I am married to one and from what I understand, she wants to:

Save time – Less thumb typing and an easy, sometimes visual path to the product or information she needs is key.

Kill time – A fun way to uncover news, pictures or places that surprise and delight.

Be appreciated – Mothers can be intensely loyal to brands that treat them right by listening to what they like and anticipating what they need.

Mobile sites that can handle these three use cases for busy mothers will earn a place in their hearts (and home screens). Those that can’t will be discarded like an old pair of mom jeans.

Image by Lorna Watt used under Creative Commons license.

More Like This

Killing time on a smartphone

More Like ThisWe all do it. If we have a few spare minutes, we reach for our phone. We’re not looking for anything in particular, just something to keep us entertained or inspired. It’s usually a visual thing, drawing us to mobile sites and apps like Instagram, Facebook or Pinterest. But sadly, do you know what sites this urge to kill time never brings us to? A retailer’s mobile site.

It’s not that people don’t want to look at the products retailers carry. In fact, if you spend some time on Pinterest, you’ll find that images of fashion and design from retail sites are pinned all over boards with clever names like “things I want in my closet.” Pinterest is organized in a way that lets users visually discover things that are interesting to them. They can meander in any direction they choose on a self-guided tour of things that visually speak to them. Compare that experience to the typical mobile e-commerce site.

These sites, to put it mildly, were not built with the “killing time” use case in mind. Neither site search nor the typical category navigation tree were created to allow for visual product discovery. But, with the amount of time people kill on their smartphones, this is clearly a missed opportunity for retailers. What if a retailer’s mobile site took the “killing time” use case into account and created an experience that gave them what they want…an effortless way to discover products they’re interested in. Liken it to a shopper coming into a brick-and-mortar store to browse. In fact, physical stores are designed for exactly this. They’re meant to make it easy for a shopper to navigate to what they like. It’s the original “engagement” for customers…you know…the kind where humans talked directly to other humans.

Mobile sites that allow users to browse their virtual shelves visually see significantly higher engagement. For example, shoppers who engage with BloomReach Mobile’s “More Like This” functionality on the Deb Shops mobile site – (where they can tap an icon to view similar products, effectively running a search, but without any thumb typing) – spend 40% more time on the site. And, keep in mind, that time on site is spent having an enjoyable experience, not frustratingly attempting to find a needle in a haystack.

The “killing time” use case is real. It’s time for retailers to embrace it and build their mobile sites with a beautiful, data-driven experience that delights customers.