Andrew Fowler, UK Country Manager for Apptus Technologies, shares his views

OPINION: Online retail tips for the Christmas selling period

Andrew Fowler, UK Country Manager for Apptus Technologies, shares his tips for retailers to make the most of the Christmas selling period online.

Last year, one in five people did all of their Christmas shopping online, and even the most sceptical of those that ventured out onto the High Street on Christmas Eve will probably ask themselves, ‘Why not more?’

As we have all experienced, shopping on the High Street can be hard work, but finding perfect Christmas gifts for friends and family requires the stamina of a Tibetan Sherpa.

But if online shopping makes life a little easier for customers at Christmas, for retailers it’s a different story, and three factors combine to make a perfect seasonal storm for ecommerce managers and merchandisers alike…

Dealing with new stock

Much like Santa’s sack on the day itself, retailers’ stores get overloaded with new products. But with little to no sales history to guide placement, where should online merchandisers position these new products relative to the older stock that they know sells well? With product exposure levels being a fraction of that in physical stores, getting this wrong can have an enormous impact on sales.

Selling to customers who don’t know what to buy

Most retailers employ the ‘refine and find’ model for laying out their online stores, the underlying assumption being that most customers have at least some clue as what they want to buy and can happily navigate the store to where they need to be.

But Christmas shoppers often have no clue what to buy; browsing stores aimlessly, hoping to stumble across ‘just the right thing’, or at least find some inspiration to point them in the right direction.

Nearly all ecommerce sites send customers down product cul-de-sacs, and if customers don’t like what they see they’re forced to pass products they’ve already seen to get to new ones. It’s a merchandising strategy akin to blocking the ends of aisles. We don’t do it in the physical world, so why do it online?

Managing the hordes

The multitude of shoppers on Oxford Street is nothing compared to what happens online, and it comes as no surprise that such great customer numbers can impact the performance of sites. Coupled with the additional page views generated by customers browsing, not searching, then any site can fall victim to latency issues that in turn lowers conversion.

So what can retailers do?

Most retailers have some options regarding ‘managing the hordes’, but dealing with the issues of new products and ‘aimless browsers’ are harder to solve, and are fundamentally issues for the retailer’s search and merchandising solution provider to solve.

At Apptus, we’re constantly looking for ways to improve our algorithms, and dealing with the life-cycle of products and optimising the introduction of new products is a consideration that absorbs much of our thinking. It’s a problem that ultimately requires many simultaneous merchandising tests, lots of data, and large amounts of statistical analysis.

Similarly, developing new interface paradigms for those customers who are ‘just browsing’, who outside of Christmas still account for a significant proportion of our clients’ traffic, is another area where we spend considerable effort. More so, now that touch-devices have become mainstream and have fundamentally changed the way in which customers interact with ecommerce sites.

It goes without saying that such undertakings pose significant engineering challenges, but this is our bread and butter, which is why for Apptus clients’ the third problem of server load is never an issue. To solve the first and second problems, we first had to address the third.

Christmas 2013 is your Ghost of Christmas Present, but come January, it, like Christmases gone before, will become your Ghost of Christmas Past. In years to come, it won’t be a fifth of customers who do all Christmas shopping online, it will be a quarter, or a third, or possibly more. So once the decorations have been stowed away for another year, and the cards recycled, make yourself a resolution…

Learn from Christmases past…

  • Think how you’re going to introduce those new items without harming sales of core products.
  • Develop new ways of guiding browsers through the site that don’t lead to cul-de-sacs.
  • And, finally, ensure your site can weather the inevitable storm that is your Christmas sale.

Alternatively, ask Santa for new merchandising solution.

About the author

Andrew Fowler is UK Country Manager for Apptus, which provides retailers with online search and merchandising technology. 

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