9 ways to get — and stay — ahead in e-commerce

There are baseline features that every online shopper expects from retailers. But earning customer loyalty requires more than just a usable website.

At Shop.org’s Digital Experience Workshop, e-commerce leaders identified the new basics — what consumers have come to expect — and new opportunities for creating increasingly remarkable retail experiences.


The new basics: What consumers expect

“As you’re living through disruptions, they’re harder to recognize,” SapientRazorfish’s Jason Goldberg said. But massive changes prompted by digital technology — especially smartphones — are just as significant as other major disruptions in retail history.

Just 10 years ago, the most popular phone was the Motorola Razr and people said “don’t go online and don’t get into cars with strangers.” Now we use apps like Uber on our smartphones to ask strangers to drive us where we want to go.

As consumers’ lives change in response to new technologies, the baseline for expectations around digital experience edges forward. The inaugural playbook for this event, published in 2014, outlined the basics of usability considerations — including site speed, image optimization and user research — and those are still important factors. The 2016 workshop yielded a new crop of UX insights for retailers:

Make it simple.

Nir Eyal pointed out the evolution of Twitter’s entry page, which has become much simpler over the years. Instead of multiple triggers, there’s just one “ask” of a user when they go to Twitter.com: log in or sign up. What’s the one thing you want a customer to do when they arrive at a page on your site? Make sure it’s obvious.

But not too simple.

After Cornerstone Brands’ team launched a redesigned Garnet Hill website, anecdotal feedback was positive but cart views and orders were down. Customers were missing the too-subtle message at the top of the page after adding items to their cart. After adding a modal window prompting users to check out or continue shopping, cart views instantly jumped higher than pre-launch numbers and sales per session increased 12 percent.

Edgacent’s Linda Bustos gave attendees a rundown of emerging standards in mobile commerce design, including tips for better hamburger menus, image optimization, pagination and scrolling, drop-down menus and checkout optimization. (Sketchquote by San Diego-based artist Anne McColl.)

The homepage isn’t always the homepage.

For mobile users or consumers arriving on a retail site via search, a product detail page is the homepage. Abercrombie & Fitch’s Billy May emphasized the importance of every page on an e-commerce site and cautioned against focusing on the homepage at the expense of the rest of the site.

Think subways, not moon landings.

Digital retail executive Lance Thornswood, formerly of JCPenney, said retailers shouldn’t think of digital projects like a moon landing. Small and fast iterations — like a subway that comes and goes every few minutes — is a better analogy for getting you where you need to go. “Good enough is good enough … for now,” Thornswood said, and any improvements that aren’t addressed in the launch of a new product or feature can be addressed in the next round of iterations.


The new opportunities: Exceeding expectations

The lines between digital and physical retail are increasingly blurred, and retail companies are starting to look and act more like tech companies. Can retailers become more innovative and more competitive by rethinking the way they do business?

Digital first.

JustFab’s Adam Goldenberg thinks future fashion brands will be built online, where e-commerce creates immediate national accessibility and marketing dollars can be invested in creating brand awareness instead of opening physical stores.

Connecting the physical and digital worlds.

Walgreens’ Deepika Pandey said “mobile is the great connector,” a bridge between physical and digital worlds. The Walgreens app has an in-store mode and loyalty program that have increased engagement, and the company has been bullish on mobile payments: Walgreens was the first retailer to link with ApplePay and upgraded its POS systems early to accept NFC payments. Pandey says multichannel customers are 3.5 times more valuable than store-only customers; mobile customers are 6 times more valuable.

Mobile is “the great connector,” a bridge between physical and digital worlds.

In-house expertise.

Digital commerce startups like Combatant Gentlemen think of themselves as technology companies first and fashion retailers second. One-third of Combatant Gentlemen’s employees have technology and engineering roles, and the company invested in building its own proprietary data system because out-of-the-box solutions weren’t a perfect fit. JustFab also builds its own business technology, and keeps other core competencies like marketing and advertising in-house as well.

Sketchquote by San Diego-based artist Anne McColl.

Better partnerships.

Retail has a lot to learn from companies like Facebook, Apple and Amazon that think of other tech companies as both competitors and partners. Walgreens launched its developer program by opening up the API for its photo printing experience. Now the company has more than 275 partner integrations across multiple lines of business, including pharmacy prescriptions and fitness tracking. Relationships with third-party vendors and partners like TurnTo, TripAdvisor and Certona also helped eBags enhance its customer experience. And when Cornerstone Brands was redesigning its websites, it included a personalization engine powered by Monetate to tailor homepage content based on a user’s past purchases.

Better data.

The right data takes emotion out of decision-making and can help retailers prioritize. ModCloth’s Mike Janover and Kara Skrip said the company is constantly iterating and taking calculated risks, fueled by an analytics strategy that lets the team know if what they’re trying is working. That user research and data is helpful for convincing executives and refocuses difficult conversations around the customer and her preferences. But beware of “data paralysis,” Combatant Gentlemen’s Vishaal Melwani said. Coming up with a question first, then asking for data to answer that question, can help retailers that might otherwise be overwhelmed by irrelevant information.