Why “Christmas in July” is just the beginning of holiday optimization

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Once upon a time eCommerce sites went into “lockdown” mode in September or early October and nothing fundamental changed until after the holidays. Indeed a survey by Internet Retailer magazine showed just 35% of merchants last year made changes frequently in response to consumer behavior/trends. But as “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” nearly half reported that when rare changes were made they were required to address a major issue.

In preparing for holiday this year, brands will be forced to be more responsive and dynamic to meet expanding consumer expectations for granular personalization and marketing brought on by big data, as well as for flawless, fast performance and uptime.

The concept of agile computing, a term once reserved for software development teams, now finds itself an essential piece for planning holiday. Merchants must adopt an environment of continuous improvement and encourage rapid and flexible response to change.

Not there yet? Here are some ways to appear agile without endangering basic functionality:

Feature user-driven content as a source of up to the minute info and ideas for promotions. To build synergy between its website and social media buzz Helzberg Diamonds promoted a Twitter hashtag on its homepage and featured a gallery of customer images.

helzberg-hashtag-2014-holidaySuch user-generated content is always changing, is often on the forefront of cultural trends and memes and can provide an endless supply of value-added bling to your web site. It can also help you triangulate your store’s commerce site with the brand’s social media properties providing the heat necessary for better SEO.

Build campaigns around top sellers and trending items. Use the data about most-desired items collected by user-generated content and shared wishlists to build campaigns around top sellers and trending items. Or better yet, beyond static categories or hand-merchandised gift lists, seek out advanced technology partners.

Gone are the days when integrating advanced web features required a team of dedicated internal development staff. Merchants should be on the look out for platforms and plug-ins that can automate the parsing of the myriad data into usable and dynamic marketing tools. Employ on-the-fly generation of new site pages based on your site’s popular search terms. Bloomreach’s tool parses popular search terms and dynamically generates new site content organizing pages around what customers are actually actively looking for.

Get grassroots feedback from store staff throughout season, adjust content and customer service offerings accordingly. Close the information gap. Forge pathways for store personnel and customer service staff to communicate with business, merchandising and technical teams about what they are hearing in the field. Big data notwithstanding, no one has a better pulse on what customers are experiencing in their brand interactions than the humans you have hired to guide them through the buying process. Find a way to collect and act on their recommendations.

Conversely, provide front-line staff with the all the necessary tools and training to navigate online resources and guide shoppers to purchase. Be sure to empower associates to acknowledge and reward loyal customers, facilitate smooth returns, or ameliorate bumpy customer experiences with coupons and discounts.

You don’t want social media to become the de facto disgruntled customer service forum. Don’t let yours be the brand that requires multiple emails, phone calls and a social media post to extract customer satisfaction. Note the customer frustration in the posts on Pottery Barn’s Facebook page below.

Pottery Barn Facebook Customer ServiceWhen it comes to customer service, get your yoga on. Small to medium-sized merchants have an advantage here. Think contortion.

Its easier to balance on solid ground. Evaluate the role your technical partnerships played in 2014. Take a hard look and ask these questions. Is your cloud or Web hosting and e-commerce platform provider reliable? Do they have the expertise — including mobile? Are they responsive?  Can they handle the traffic? Are they agile enough to react to customer feedback or are they resource-strapped from fall onward? Now is the time to make necessary adjustments to your team.

Can you handle mobile? Mobile is playing a dominant role in holiday shopping. Make sure your site is optimized for the small screen. This step is not optional for the holiday win. 24% of total revenues are now attributable to mobile, according to the MarketLive Performance Index.

Strive for real-time inventory across touchpoints and make live order tracking available to your entire team. Study cloud services and benefits and dynamic load handling options to ensure your site stays up during traffic spikes/big sales events. Performance (speed and uptime performance) and the ability to quickly employ updates will win the season. Investment in technology that assures site performance and stability is critical. Look for technology and merchandising automation solutions that allow for quick response to market signals.

The takeaway. Don’t wait and see what might happen, prepare well and early for commonplace failures and be nimble enough to take advantage of unforeseen opportunities. Those who invest in the right tools and technology will be able to make the most of Holiday 2015. What are your priorities?

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When to jump on the bandwagon – and when to go it alone

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If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

The old adage came to mind last Wednesday, as headlines about Amazon’s Prime Day sales event peppered news feeds and email inboxes were full of discount offers — and not just from Amazon itself. While the competing sale offered by Wal-Mart grabbed most of the media attention, dozens of retailers calendared deep discounts and free shipping days to coincide with Prime Day in an effort to ride Amazon’s coattails to a revenue high.

These sales events, while competing with Amazon for shopping dollars on the big day, were at the same time tacit endorsements of the mega-merchant’s power — “allowing Amazon to wag the Internet,” as one analyst put it. The world’s top Internet merchant, in effect, created a sales event out of nowhere, and achieved Black Friday-like revenue results.

Third-party marketplace merchants on Amazon also enjoyed a bounce, with sales 93% higher than the comparable date last year. Other merchants who jumped on the bandwagon may have seen their boat rise with the tide — or they may have inadvertently reminded their customers to check out Amazon’s event instead.

The question of whether to join forces with big players or to go it alone is relevant beyond Prime Day. In fact, with the ultra-competitive holiday season on the horizon, it may be more crucial than ever.

In our opinion, merchants who engage with their larger competitors via marketplaces and other tactics stand to gain visibility and new audiences they would otherwise be unable to achieve. The key is to strike a balance and, moving beyond the initial sale, to engage those shoppers to interact directly with their own brands. Among our recommendations for when to jump on the bandwagon — and when not to:

When to join:

  • Gain mobile visibility via social networks. Mobile is now the default touchpoint for social networking, with some 71% of social traffic now originating on mobile devices; and the latest crop of fast-growing social sites, such as Instagram and social-messaging services such as Snapchat and WhatsApp, are designed primarily for mobile users. As a result, merchants with brand outposts on social networks have another avenue for reaching shoppers via their mobile devices — one they can capitalize on by ensuring that relevant customer service and content links are fully integrated in the social environment and by stimulating connections with brand-owned resources. And with the new spate of “buy” buttons debuting on social networks, the time may soon come when those social pathways lead even directly to purchase.
  • Leverage mobile payment options. Use of mobile wallets is forecast to rise steeply in the next few years, rising from 3% of U.S. shoppers today to 18-20% by 2018. So merchants would do well to assess which payment provider is the best potential partner, track whether third-party marketplaces are offering integrated mobile payments, and survey customers to understand their interest in and usage of mobile payments.

When to go solo:

  • There’s no substitute for native mobile prowess. While merchants can partner their way to increased mobile visibility, that heightened consumer awareness will lead nowhere unless brand sites are usable and offer a seamless transition from device to screen to physical store location. If they haven’t already, merchants should invest in fully optimizing their mobile Web sites, whether through responsive design or as a standalone offering, and devise the means to track meaningful mobile performance data.
  • Give loyal customers a home in a brand-owned community. While social networking on the leading sites such as Facebook and Instagram is a good way to attract a new audience and invite existing followers to take action, ultimately merchants should establish direct relationships with their best customers — and feature their contributions — within the walls of their own brand’s flagship site. Such “owned” communities aren’t subject to the vagaries of social networks’ algorithm changes, privacy policy revisions or functionality upgrades. Loyalty club content and perks can be incorporated into the community to encourage members to use the site, alongside expert content and user-submitted video and/or images. Offering discussion forums and the ability to vote on ideas for improvement gives the floor to consumers in a meaningful way.

Fitness company and MarketLive merchant Beachbody provides customers with a comprehensive community that offers training support, recipes, and more for those who aim to get in shape. Content such as customer testimonials and tips are cross-posted to Facebook, but valuable lookup tools for finding workout trainers and partners are exclusive to the brand’s site — as is content from the message boards and direct-messaging capability.

Cmmunity example from Beachbody

How are you leveraging partnerships with big players, and what areas does your brand “own”? And why?

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Research update: 2 resources for making the most of your data

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As the Web plays an ever more central role in shopping, more data than ever is available to help merchants deliver the relevant experiences that spur sales and foster brand loyalty.

With the number of eCommerce merchants growing, the number of devices consumers use to shop proliferating, social outlets providing new streams of information about brand reputation and word of mouth recommendations, and new technologies increasingly available to capture and quantify offline activities, merchants have plenty of numbers at their fingertips.

Analyzing and giving shape to that data – and turning it into actionable results – is the crucial next step for merchants, and a necessary one to take. Increasingly, consumers want brand interactions to be anything but generic, but rather to cater to their personal preferences and histories. Among the expectations:

Data is central to meeting these expectations, and merchants acknowledge the importance of integrating systems to move beyond isolated data sets such as web analytics and CRM databases that fail to take into account shoppers’ activities across the brand. Fully 83% of merchants somewhat or fully agree that a single view of the customer is crucial to long-term success, according to eConsultancy, and 56% seek to deliver cross-touchpoint personalization, the E-Tailing Group found.

But identifying a goal isn’t the same is attaining it, and so far merchants report trailing behind consumers’ expectations for sophisticated data analysis and the tailored experiences that should result. There are multiple pain points:

  • Less than a third of merchants report having strong or even average capabilities when it comes to uniting data from different sources into a single customer profile, according to eConsultancy.
  • Fully 85% of merchants say they’re unable to extract full value from the data they already have, and 62% report being overwhelmed by that data, eConsultancy found.
  • At the same time, the E-Tailing Group reports that less than a quarter of merchants believe they have enough data to truly personalize their shopping experiences.

As merchants strive to capture valuable insights from the upcoming holiday season — and plan for data-gathering improvements, upgrades and integrations in 2016 — they should consult two essential MarketLive resources:

Implementing Big Data for the Mid-Sized Merchant defines concretely the much-hyped term “big data” in the context of online commerce, and offers real-world applications of big data to improve brand interactions throughout the customer lifecycle.

Connecting Data Points and KPIs in a Multi-Channel World examines how merchants can move beyond the basics of their Web analytics packages to attain a cross-touchpoint view of shopping behaviors, from social media interactions to online/offline connections.

Stay tuned for our latest MarketLive Performance Index benchmark report, as well as performance updates throughout the holiday season.

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How to focus holiday priorities (and the input to ignore)

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With the Fourth of July in the rearview mirror, it’s time to realistically assess the status of new features merchants planned to roll out before the holidays, and to put the final touches on holiday campaigns. Choosing the right priorities for the remaining weeks before holiday kickoff is crucial — and too often, merchants are looking in all the wrong places for guidance.

The stakes are higher than ever when it comes to holiday sales. Online holiday sales accounted for more than 16% of all retail sales in 2014, according to the National Retail Federation. With double-digit eCommerce growth once again expected for the holidays in 2015, merchants stand to win big — or to suffer repercussions for missteps.

That’s why, when it comes to paring down the final list of holiday to-dos, we advise merchants to focus squarely on their own unique business needs, and to tune out hype and conjecture in favor of solid data. To determine which priorities are worth pursuing, merchants should:

Mine the right analytics data for guidance on site tweaks. Site usage data can be a gold mine of actionable information on what shoppers seek and where sites need further improvement to resonate. Among the data to study:

  • On-site search logs. “Zero results” logs can reveal gaps in content and discrepancies between merchant and shopper terminology. Searches for specific brand names and product types can suggest new categories to create or at least attributes to tag for guided search. And searches for customer service-related terms can suggest what service content to elevate and highlight throughout the path to purchase.
  • Mobile vs. desktop discrepancies. Comparing popular site paths, fallout analyses and product page performance reports on mobile and desktop sites can illuminate where mobile versions are falling short and need further optimization — and where it can be useful to encourage (or at least support) screen switching with features such as “save for later” or “save cart”.
  • Usage of online/offline features. Identifying where shoppers hesitate when using features such as “buy online, pick up in-store” or even registration for in-store events can help merchants smooth the transition from screen to store. And close analysis of how shoppers access content promoted within stores on mobile devices — and what actions they choose to take after viewing that content — can give merchants a more complete picture of cross-touchpoint activity.

Double down on social networks with engaged followers. While merchants should be prepared to provide responsive service via all the brand’s social outposts, they should focus their most creative holiday efforts on the networks where followers are more likely to actively respond, share and contribute their own content, versus passively scrolling past brand offerings. In addition, merchants should use their attribution model of choice to determine which networks drive the most direct revenue and consider experimenting with new “buy” buttons to further motivate purchasing.

Consult store staff for online content gaps. Amidst the chatter about beacons, facial recognition, dynamic shelf tags and other whiz-bang technology surrounding the digital store, we’re fans of old-fashioned human interaction and believe store staff are the most important asset for supporting online/offline brand interactions. Not only can store associates help shoppers navigate online resources and complete transactions, but they can gauge consumer sentiment and identify gaps in brand content, whether for products or for services such as in-store pickup or ship-to-store. Merchants should find the means to tap these valuable front-line information sources and act on their recommendations.

Invite existing customers to drive holiday promotions. For guidance on promotional strategies, merchants should look to customers themselves — whether by studying purchase patterns of loyal buyers and loyalty club members or by explicitly asking shoppers to choose which items they’d like to see featured on Black Friday or Cyber Monday, as Target did during “March Madness”. Users of the Target Cartwheel app could vote on which items to discount for the basketball tourney’s kickoff weekend.

Example of voting on a promotion from Target

And just as these sources can provide reliable guidance, there’s plenty of input that merchants should ignore. Two of the biggies:

What the competition does isn’t relevant. This advice may seem counterintuitive. On one level, it’s useful to know what other merchants in the industry are offering shoppers.  But merchants shouldn’t strive to keep up with the features another site offers without knowing whether those strategies are actually delivering results. Even if they have access to such intelligence, merchants should recognize that even within industry sectors, differences between individual brands’ audience demographics, product offerings and price points, and the number and locations of stores, among other factors, mean that a true “apples to apples” comparison simply does not apply.

That hot new social network doesn’t matter. With the ROI of even established sites like Facebook being difficult to justify for most merchants, they should be leery of jumping on the bandwagon of the latest social network just for the sake of “being there” — especially during the holidays, when consumers are likely to have heightened expectations for responsive and savvy customer service on social outposts. With the number of social networks proliferating, merchants should select social opportunities based on where their audience already gathers — or where a specific target audience can be tapped, such as for new international markets — rather than launching new outposts willy nilly.

How are you prioritizing holiday strategies, and what will you forgo?

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How to make apps work for your brand — whether you build one or not

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Conventional wisdom these days dictates that merchants forgo mobile apps. We ourselves have recommended that merchants should prioritize perfecting their mobile Web sites, which can be accessed using devices’ native browsers or via mobile search results, over investing time and money in custom-built programs shoppers download to their devices. The advent of responsive design, which enables maintenance of mobile, tablet and desktop sites from a single base of code, makes mobile apps even more obviously a stretch, as they require separate updates and integrations.

Nonetheless, there’s a compelling argument to be made for building a branded app, and that argument is based on the bottom line. As MarketLive founder Ken Burke notes in “Where’s Your App?” on the eTail Blog, apps drove 44% of mobile commerce sales in 2014, and app-savvy merchants such as Neiman Marcus and Victoria’s Secret credit as much as 60% of their mobile sales to their apps.

So while apps are no substitute for a solid mobile Web site, merchants may find they’re worth undertaking if they can design an experience that delivers unique functionality and efficiency, such as mobile payments or loyalty club features. As Burke describes it:

Retailers seeking committed users need to ensure their app provides shoppers with something of value. Think outside the desktop toward unique mobile-enhanced experiences rather than just replicating what your web site does. … When developing your app think, “What can only be done using a smartphone?”

As an example, Burke cites The Home Depot, which takes advantage of the portability of mobile devices and their built-in cameras to enable shoppers to “see” how products would look in their homes using an “augmented reality” app.

App example from Home Depot

In addition to detailing the pros and cons of apps, Burke offers advice to those merchants who still can’t see their way to prioritizing app development. By piggybacking on other successful apps, Burke says, brands can achieve visibility and forge customer connections.

Read the full Etail Blog article, and then let us know your app strategy and the rationale behind it.

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How to overcome security concerns for the holidays

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As merchants prepare for the 2015 holiday season, they’ll need to overcome lingering malaise about information and payment security. The good news is that online touchpoints can play a starring role in the effort.

Thanks to a series of high-profile security breaches since late 2013, from Target to Neiman Marcus to Michael’s to Home Depot, shoppers are jittery about the safety of their transactions, with repercussions for merchants’ bottom line. Fully 45% of all shoppers say they don’t trust merchants to keep  their information safe, according to the marketing firm Retail Perceptions; a third say they’ve hesitated to make purchases online due to security concerns, and 29% have been reluctant to make purchases at physical stores, according to BizRate Insights.

Of those who’ve actually experienced a data breach, more than a third say they’ll shop at the targeted retailer less frequently, and a third say they shared their experiences via social media. Of those who do persist with the brand whose data was breached, 26% say they intentionally spend less.

And lest merchants think the nervousness is confined to tech-averse oldsters, data from defense specialist Raytheon reveals that even Millennials (aged 18-24) are pessimistic about online data security. Four in five are concerned that personal information can be collected about them online, 77% worry about identity theft — and more than one in four have abandoned a shopping transaction due to security concerns.

If there’s a silver lining for eCommerce merchants, it’s that online shopping on desktop or laptop computers is actually considered the most secure shopping touchpoint, edging out brick-and-mortar stores by two percentage points, according to BizRate — likely because those big data breaches in the past year were via retail store point of sale terminals. Not surprisingly, mobile was considered the least secure, with 65% of shoppers saying merchants didn’t offer enough in the way of security for transacting and sharing information via their devices.

Perceptions of information security from BizRateCounteracting these negative perceptions and earning trust is crucial to winning sales, especially during the upcoming holiday season, when shoppers’ gift research could bring them into contact with new brands whose security track record is unknown.  While it’s likely too late to enact basic technology upgrades in support of PCI compliance, encryption and tokenization, there’s still time for merchants to make strides on the security front and spotlight their commitment to keeping shoppers’ information safe. Among the strategies:

Tighten internal controls — especially with an mPOS rollout. Revising and enforcing internal business rules that can close a substantial portion of security loopholes. Just 38% of breaches are caused by actual hacking from external sources, according to the Online Trust Alliance, whereas fully 29% arose from a lack of internal controls such as password policies, and 21% were caused by lost or stolen company devices, equipment or documents. Especially as more and more store associates begin using online brand resources and facilitating purchases via mobile points-of-sale, having security policies and procedures and taking them seriously are essential.

Adopt alternative payments. As we’ve stressed repeatedly over the years, alternative payments can allay shoppers’ fears by giving them a means to complete purchases without entering credit card data. Offering a quick shortcut through checkout is especially important for mobile shoppers, who not only need extra reassurance that their transactions are safe but also are hard-pressed to peck out numerous form fields using a handheld device’s keyboard.

Merchants who offer alternative payments should promote them well before the cart and checkout, so shoppers know they can complete their transactions safely and efficiently from the get-go. MarketLive merchant Sport Chalet promotes its affiliation with Visa Checkout prominently on the front page and even offers a promotional discount to those using the service.

Alt payment example from Sport ChaletEnable a saved cart. Give shoppers the flexibility to complete checkout wherever they most feel comfortable doing so. With desktop or laptop eCommerce sites perceived as least lacking in security features, mobile shoppers may well wait to complete orders until they get home.

Watch the horizon for still more options. Not only should merchants be considering mobile payments, especially in connection with their mobile apps and loyalty programs, but they should keep an eye out for further innovations as vendors jostle to offer the ultimate seamless-and-secure payment solution. One such cutting-edge technology employs facial recognition software to tie shoppers to their stored payment data using selfies snapped on a mobile phone. While futuristic-sounding, this payment method is already offered by the firm Etup on college campuses — and Chinese commerce giant Alibaba debuted “Smile to Pay” in March, with plans to launch it widely coming soon.

How do you put shoppers’ minds at ease when it comes to payment and personal information security?

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4 ways to stay visible in Facebook’s news feed

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For many brands, Facebook is the default anchor of their social media strategy. But as with all social media, the direct ROI for Facebook has been difficult to prove — and with visibility via “organic” news feed posts on the decline, merchants must work harder than ever to reach their followers.

Facebook is popular with merchants largely due to its sheer critical mass. Some 71% of U.S. online adults use it, more than any other social network. Facebook is the site of choice for 79% of those who use only one social network, and of the 52% of online adults who use multiple networks, Facebook is in the mix for the vast majority of them: more than 85% of Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest users say they’re also on Facebook.

But Facebook has become increasingly problematic as the visibility has steadily dropped for unpaid business Page posts. Partly, the difficulty is a byproduct of Facebook’s massive popularity; as more brands join the social network and post ever more frequently, competition for news feed visibility has risen precipitously. The number of branded posts is up 31% in the first quarter of 2015 versus the same period in 2014, according to the Adobe Digital Index.

Partly in response to this growth, Facebook has taken two significant steps to prioritize non-commercial content. In mid-January, Facebook downgraded content deemed “too promotional”, including posts pushing purchases, downloads or sweepstakes entries and posts that mimicked ad content verbatim. Then, following an April announcement that coincided with with Google’s “mobilegeddon” update, Facebook gave top priority to original status updates from friends versus Pages, and, furthermore, downgraded notifications showing friend activity such as liking or commenting on other posts.

While the effects of Facebook’s April update have yet to be quantified, data for the first quarter shows that the January algorithm change alone has accounted for a significant drop in “organic” traffic to business Pages. Unpaid impressions for brand posts overall dropped a whopping 35% for the first quarter of 2015 versus the same period in 2014, according to the Adobe Digital Index. Specifically within retail, the rate of interaction with branded posts dropped 12% to 4.1%.

Given Facebook’s dominance, the changes are likely behind falling referrals to eCommerce sites from social media overall. In Q1, visits driven by social media dropped to 1%, down from 3% in the prior quarter and 2% a year ago, according to the MarketLive Performance Index.

index_socialcontribution_2015june

In our view, renewed skepticism toward Facebook is a healthy reaction to these new challenges. The key is to act on that impulse by analyzing the behaviors that lead to strong brand connections — and to determine whether and how Facebook can support those behaviors. Among the tactics to consider:

Smart segmentation for paid Facebook posts. In a way, Facebook’s changes suggests that merchants should undertake a similar shift to the one that’s already occurred in search engine marketing, where merchants have increasingly dropped their obsession with keyword-driven organic rankings and upped investment in paid search campaigns in response to Google’s algorithm changes.

Similarly, merchants may want to consider paid Facebook placements, with or without “buy” buttons attached, to make up for lost organic visibility — but, as with search, the key to ad effectiveness is to target relentlessly. Merchants undertaking paid Facebook ads should integrate social campaigns with data from Web analytics and CRM systems to connect followers (and would-be followers) with social ads tailored to their situations. Browse and cart abandonment remarketing, post-purchase promotion of complementary or replenishment items, and loyalty or membership club promotions can be effective social advertising strategies using Facebook’s Custom Audiences tool.

Activation of influential followers. With the most recent news feed adjustment, even followers’ “likes” of and comments on brand posts may not be enough to make the content show up in their friends’ feeds. So merchants need to go further to spur individuals to post their own original content about brands. A good place to start is with existing advocates — those brand followers who already “like” posts, share and pin products, write reviews and otherwise take an active role in social media. Engaging those individuals on a one-to-one basis and inviting them to up their involvement can result in the kind of traction that boost brand visibility in news feeds across the network.

MarketLive merchant Francesca’s uses its Facebook page to give props to style bloggers, who, in turn, give visibility to Francesca’s page and products in their coverage. Francesca’s own post featuring the blogger HapaGirl garnered 28 “likes”, while her own post and link to further blog coverage received more than 450 “likes” from her audience of more than 70,000.

Social example from Francesca's

Social example from Francesca's

Empowering customer service. We’ve touched before on the crucial role customer service plays in building brand reputation on social networks and beyond. Merchants should both promote stellar service on Facebook and promote examples of above-and-beyond care along with customer service offerings such as personal shoppers and free returns. Service-oriented content both reinforces followers’ allegiance and provides fodder for their own posts about the brand.

Integrate user-generated content everywhere. By featuring the customer voice throughout the shopping experience, not just on Facebook, merchants give followers incentive to use Facebook to link to eCommerce site content or to branded community resources they’ve helped build. MarketLive merchant Beachbody features the Beachbody Challenge, which rewards customers who submit testimonials with cash prizes, on its eCommerce site and on a dedicated Facebook page. Contestants are encouraged to solicit votes as part of the process, thereby creating a popularity contest that drives traffic to both the brand’s Facebook and eCommerce sites.

bbodychallenge2

How is your brand faring in the Facebook news feed? What strategies have proven successful for engaging followers and their friends?

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Why “easy” internationalization is still harder than it looks – and how to tackle it anyway

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As the middle of the year approaches and merchants start looking beyond the holidays to map out their core priorities for 2016, internationalization is high on the list for many. And with good reason: while U.S. online commerce is forecast to grow by a healthy 12% this year, and to average gains of 10% through 2019, other countries are experiencing more marked growth. Nascent markets in Asia and India are expected to see online sales jump by more than 20% by 2019, and even the relatively mature European market represents an opportunity to capture significant new audiences. While the United Kingdom’s eCommerce growth rate is forecast to average just 9.1% over the next three years, for example, those sales will represent 18% of all retail transactions in 2018. By comparison, in the same year in the U.S., online revenues are set to make up just 12% of retail sales.

When contemplating launch into new markets, merchants understandably cast their eyes first toward markets that seem “easier”: the Canada, the U.K., and Australia, where language and cultural barriers appear minimal. And these three countries represent a significant sales opportunity:

  • The U.K. is currently Europe’s largest eCommerce market, forecast to generate more than 56 billion Euros in revenue this year.
  • In Canada, year-over-year growth of 15% is forecast for the second year in a row in 2015, bringing total eCommerce revenues to more than 25 billion Canadian dollars. eCommerce giant Amazon has seized the opportunity, announcing this week that it now offers 100 million products through its Canadian site and speciality shopping hubs for fashion and shoes.
  • Australia is forecast to generate $28.9 billion in eCommerce revenues this year — with much of it in play for cross-border companies, thanks to a friendly duty-free import allowance.

But merchants tempted to jump into business abroad armed with little more than an eCommerce site in local currency should consider recent failures by some of the U.S.’s biggest brands. Target closed the last of its Canadian outlets in April after a two-year fiasco that included supply chain problems and a glaring lack of eCommerce. Coffee juggernaut Starbucks pulled out of Australia after products failed to resonate with local tastes. Best Buy ended efforts to expand into the U.K. in 2011 and ceased all European operations in 2013.  And, proving that cross-border difficulties go both ways, in 2013 U.K. retailer Tesco sold off its Fresh and Easy stores on the West coast of the U.S.

These high-profile flops suggest that even English-speaking countries represent a significant expansion challenge for U.S. brands. Subtle but significant cultural differences abound; fulfillment and supply chain logistics are complicated by geographic distance and legal fine print; and in Canada, merchants must develop a strategy for serving the 22% of the population claiming French as their mother tongue — including 80% of residents in Canada’s second-largest city, Montreal.

Among the factors merchants must consider before making the leap:

Mobile readiness. In many parts of the world, mobile is even more ubiquitous than in the U.S., with some populations using mobile devices as their primary means of accessing the Web. In Australia, one in five consumers researches purchases on smartphones at least weekly, while 16% report making purchases. By 2018, 49% of all European online retail transactions are forecast to take place on mobile devices; the U.K. specifically is set to see an average growth rate of 36% year over year. That means a “mobile-first” strategy must not only be an ideal, but concrete reality for merchants wishing to expand abroad; they must offer full-featured mobile sites on a par with local competitors. In the U.K., department store Debenhams offers a rich mobile experience, complete with reviews and easy-to-scan delivery information, and also gives shoppers the option of app downloads that incorporate barcode scanning in stores and tracking loyalty club points for beauty purchases.

debenhams

Order fulfillment nimbleness. In densely-populated areas, two-day shipping can be the norm, with some brands offering same-day delivery as a differentiating service. Merchants must weigh whether they can compete on local terms using their own supply and delivery networks, and at what cost. In Canada, the postal service has been a key player in online commerce shipment options. A new service gives shoppers the ability to direct individual orders to post offices for pickup, while the Delivered Tonight program has been in operation since 2013 offering same-day shipping in greater Toronto and Vancouver — a service Amazon is now matching.

Canada-Post-Mastermind-Toys-150x150

“Lite” alternatives. We’ve previously addressed how brands can test the waters abroad by offering international shipping from U.S. sites and selling in marketplaces internationally. Merchants should also delve into local social media sites to build interest and check out the competition; that might mean establishing outposts on sites still nascent in the U.S., such as mobile/social messaging services in Asia. Merchants can also consider using new “buy” button alternatives on social media and mobile search as an alternative to launching full-fledged eCommerce efforts.

MarketLive merchant Ylang 23 relies on Borderfree to fulfill shipments to more than 100 countries. The integration includes localized currency sitewide and duties and taxes calculated in checkout.

ylang_ship

Whose “boots on the ground” can help. Brands opting to launch full-fledged eCommerce efforts should either establish their own base of operations in target countries, or consider partnerships that can provide access to native knowledge of the local industry, trends and culture. Agencies, fulfillment partners, distributors, technology providers and manufacturers’ retail outlets can all provide valuable insights and best practices.

Local privacy laws and norms.  As we’ve touched on previously, European sites must now disclose use of cookies to track shopping behavior, a mandate merchants considering U.K. expansion must mind. But beyond the letter of the law, merchants should understand what data collection practices are considered acceptable and adhere to local standards. By some counts, Europe and Asia are more lax in attitudes toward privacy; fully 86% of Americans agreed with the statement, “Consumers have lost control of their privacy,” while only 76% of European and 74% of Asia-Pacific consumers did so.

Are you operating internationally, or do you plan to make the leap in 2016? How and why?

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Sorting hype from reality for digital store success – new whitepaper

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With more than half of all retail transactions now affected by the Web and nearly 70% of consumers using their mobile devices to access online content while in stores, retailers recognize the importance of connecting online and offline brand offerings.

In the rush, merchants and media are understandably drawn to a flashy blend of nascent technologies that range from location tracking to interactive tabletop and glass surfaces to facial-recognition software. The ensuing vision of connected stores conjures a well-known scene from the movie “The Minority Report,” where omnipresent retinal scanners feed data to hologram images that call to mall shoppers by name and attempt to engage them by referencing past purchases.

minorityreportFor most merchants, though, implementing these futuristic technologies would be putting the cart before the horse. Their expense and experimental nature means return on investment may prove elusive. Furthermore, for consumers, the prospect of being tracked as they move through physical store spaces may not be as alluring as it is invasive; on mobile platforms, for example, 42% of consumers say businesses accessing their geographic location is an invasion of privacy. As we’ve discussed previously, the potential for alienating shoppers rather than winning sales is very real.

Instead, the digital store initiatives with proven positive impact on sales – whether they occur online or offline – are more down-to-earth, and build on the existing qualities that have the potential to differentiate brands in a crowded marketplace. While they still entail significant investment and a complete embrace of mobile technologies, real-world digital store priorities should be an extension and expansion of current activities.

Make no mistake – even the most practical digital store initiatives represent a fundamental shift in how retailers conduct business. By letting the consumers’ quest for information and seamless service drive digital store priorities, merchants must let go of traditional internal divisions, make unprecedented investments in store staff and technology, and upgrade key online features and content to satisfy shoppers’ expectations.

MarketLive’s new eBook outlines three core principles to guide merchants’ digital store initiatives:

  • Embrace, don’t fear, online shopping in-store – the evidence suggests empowered store shoppers buy more, not less.
  • Be aware of privacy concerns – merchants must stay on the right side of the line between relevance and creepiness.
  • Store associates should be central to digital store strategy – they hold the key to unlocking a seamless shopping experience that martials all available brand resources.

Additionally, the report delineates best practices for dissolving the divide between online and offline experiences in two key areas:

  • Product selection – a completely transparent view of the brand’s entire inventory gives shoppers maximum flexibility.
  • Customer service – by providing context-relevant, proactive service, brands can build lasting connections with shoppers.

Download the eBook now to read up on key strategies and real-world examples. And let us know: how have you integrated digital and store initiatives?

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MarketLive news: unlocking data for unified commerce success

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For months we’ve stressed the need for relevant and unified commerce — a cohesive shopping experience built on a foundation of consistent product, price and promotional information that’s tailored to the touchpoint and the individual, taking into account all their interactions with the brand regardless of where and when they occur.

That lofty goal is now within closer reach for MarketLive’s merchants, thanks to two innovations announced at this week’s IRCE show in Chicago, both of which enable seamless data exchange to provide the most relevant experience possible.

ML API

Launched into public release yesterday, the ML API is a RESTful web service that allows real-time access and data exchange between MarketLive and external data sources.

The ML API enables access by front-end apps to information such as inventory levels, product descriptions, pricing, customer preferences, order history, loyalty points, and any other contextually-related content that is held within the MarketLive Engine.

“Customers asked us to free MarketLive data in the system for use throughout the entire organization,“ said Ken Burke, founder and CEO of MarketLive Inc. “And this delivers the right balance of data exchange that our fast growing commerce customers and partners told us they want and need as they succeed moving forward.”

Using the ML API, MarketLive merchants can:

  • Syndicate their data anywhere, and create dynamic profiles
  • Target ads more accurately by enabling MarketLive data access by ad networks
  • Sell anywhere, pulling product data into content or community sites to cross-sell or upsell
  • Enable access to MarketLive data for partners developing their own apps

ML-360

Complementing the data exchange with external data sources provided by ML API, MarketLive announced this morning the launch of ML-360, which provides merchants with a 360-degree profile of customer browsing and purchase behavior by capturing and analyzing consumer behavior online and offline, and combining previously disparate backend data silos.

MarketLive’s ML-360 answers the need for retailers to convert more online browsers into buyers, to grow one-time buyers into repeat purchasers, and to retain valuable lifetime customers.

ML-360 was developed in partnership with AgilOne, whose predictive technology empowers marketers to execute highly targeted acquisition, growth and loyalty campaigns. AgilOne’s predictive marketing technology uses fuzzy matching and other sophisticated algorithms to ‘connect the dots’ among customer data to find incremental sales opportunities through highly targeted offers based on profile behavior.

Luxury footwear and accessories brand Donald J Pliner, a MarketLive merchant, leveraged AgilOne’s capabilities to merge its customers’ digital and physical identities into complete customer profiles, creating a unified view of its customers for the first time. The brand was then able to identify a forgotten segment of repeat buyers and launch successful reactivation campaigns targeting them. The company was also able to identify VIP customers, understand their repeat purchase patterns and communicate with this important segment at the right times. As a result of these and other strategies, the company’s online revenue has grown by nearly 50 percent over the past two years.

Donald J Pliner example

To learn more, read the official releases:

And, if you’re at IRCE, stop by MarketLive’s booth (#1601) for further details.

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