Successful replatforming in 2016 starts with the right shopping list now

A new eCommerce software platform is at the top of many online merchants’ shopping lists for 2016. For some, the impending closure of Amazon’s Webstore eCommerce solution has forced their hands, while for others, the time is simply ripe for updated technology that can help achieve multi-touchpoint mastery. Whatever the reason, close to one in five merchants say replatforming is a top priority, according to technology researcher Forrester.

But the replatforming process is much like painting the interior of a house: while applying color is the splashy result that immediately springs to mind, most of the effort is actually devoted to preparation — covering furniture and floors, taping borders, priming walls, and testing different paint shades. Similarly, merchants shouldn’t jump into the splashy fray of shopping for eCommerce platform vendors without first laying the groundwork of a solid plan. They should thoroughly assess their current capabilities and identify performance gaps and opportunities – not only within the eCommerce sphere, but across the entire organization.

The scope of this soul-searching may seem daunting, but it’s also absolutely essential. The role of the Web is only poised to keep growing for shoppers, regardless of how they end up making purchases. Forrester estimates that nearly 60% of B2C purchases of any type will be influenced by the Web by 2018.

The assessment itself needn’t take undue resources or time. While the specifics may vary, the following checklist will stand merchants well as they begin to shape their vision for the perfect technology for their business.

1. Look to the right sources for guidance. Merchants must resist the impulse to “keep up with the Joneses” and add whiz-bang features to their list only because competitors already offer them. Instead, merchants should focus with singular intensity on understanding their own customers and how best to serve them, both online and offline. Potential sources to inform their assessment include:

  • Analytics data: Site usage data can be a goldmine of actionable information on what shoppers seek and where sites need further improvement to resonate.
  • Store associates: Merchants should find the means to tap these valuable front-line information sources and act on their recommendations when it comes to gaps in brand offerings.
  • Visitor and customer surveys: Asking shoppers directly what features of the site resonate and what expectations are going unmet can be valuable input in advance of replatforming.

2. Articulate a plan for mobile. Mobile shopping is soaring, with fully a quarter of revenues during the fourth quarter of 2014 derived from mobile devices, a year over year growth rate of 44%, according to the MarketLive Performance Index. And when it comes to shopping research, mobile is now shoppers’ primary point of contact with brands. According to measurement firm comScore, close to two-thirds of all minutes spent with retail brands now occur on mobile devices.

Consequently, even small to mid-sized merchants must prioritize mobile optimization. Before replatforming, merchants should carefully consider their mobile site options and develop a road map for development. Deciding whether to undertake responsive design is a key decision point. Plans for mobile apps, email and SMS messaging campaigns, in-store mobile features, and alternative and mobile payment integrations should also come into play. With a mobile development plan in hand, merchants can develop a list of mobile-focused criteria potential vendors must meet.

3. Identify integrations organization-wide and how to improve them. Merchants should understand how the eCommerce platform interacts with technology across their business, from fulfillment operations to the call center, and identify existing and new opportunities for integrations that can improve efficiency and customer service.

For brick-and-mortar retailers, the top priority in this category must be in-store inventory integration. While just 20% of retailers offer it currently, consumers now expect total visibility and consistency, regardless of where they are physically and what screens they use. According to Forrester, 56% of consumers say they expect products to be priced consistently, whether in-store or online.

Furthermore, universal inventory transparency supports “endless aisle” capabilities that can save sales and drive up average order value, and unlocks a host of fulfillment options, such as store-to-store and ship-from-store delivery networks, that can boost efficiency across the organization.

4. Audit existing content and plan new development. The old mantra “content is king” has lately seen a resurgence. Whereas 34% of customer experience professionals cited Web content management as a top technology priority in 2013, the number jumped to 60% in 2014, Forrester found – a whopping 76% increase. The reasons for prioritizing content are numerous, but foremost among them is the imperative to differentiate the brand by communicating what’s uniquely valuable. Along with product selection and pricing, content forms the third component of a potentially compelling brand story.

Merchants contemplating replatforming should therefore develop a detailed content strategy to inform their criteria for potential vendors. They should also audit the content they have — from product information to videos to user-submitted social content — and identify opportunities for growth, syndication and improved efficiency, along with content imports and exports.

5. Build measurement into the technology foundations. With consumers shopping across multiple screens, social outlets providing streams of information, and new technologies increasingly available to quantify offline activities, merchants are juggling plenty of data beyond what traditional Web analytics tools provide — but struggle to put it all together to create a complete picture of customer behavior. Fewer than a third of merchants believe they have strong or even average capabilities when it comes creating a unified view of customer behavior across touchpoints.

To avoid further compounding the challenge, merchants should examine how potential technology solutions interact or integrate with their existing measurement tools, what data is provided and how it can be knit together with other sources.

Replatforming is a potentially daunting project. But by analyzing existing and desired capabilities before adding vendors to the mix, merchants can ensure that they meet their brands’ needs — and better serve customers in the long run.

This post is produced in conjunction with the Plumtree Group, part of MarketLive’s Implement program. Through MarketLive and the Plumtree Group, omni-channel retailers can quickly deploy and customize e-commerce features and functionality in order to meet market demands, increase revenue and loyalty.  The MarketLive/Plumtree partnership provides the emerging merchant who will need to transition off of Amazon Webstore in the coming months with the tools they need to succeed today and grow with unlimited scale tomorrow.

Follow the retailers to unified shopping success – MarketLive Performance Index

Should anyone still need convincing that delivering a unified shopping experience is a priority, the latest data from the MarketLive Performance Index proves it — and reveals the leaders of the pack in cross-touchpoint effectiveness: brick and mortar retailers.

It may seem surprising to spotlight retailers for online performance, given that the category’s conversion rate lags other categories overall, and abandonment is among the highest in the Index. But retailers have managed to do something no other sector in the Index has: they’ve accumulated steady gains in conversion and revenue across both mobile devices and desktop and laptop browsers — signaling that they seem to be navigating the rough seas of cross-touchpoint commerce more successfully than other merchants.

MarketLive Performance Index data

Happily, every sector is realizing significant gains when it comes to smartphone shopping. But, as we discussed in our coverage of the previous volume of the Index, the tables have now completely turned when it comes to performance by screen; whereas just a year ago, lagging smartphone performance was responsible for tempering overall Index results, now it’s desktop and laptop sessions that are failing to pull their weight.  And because the vast majority of shoppers who transact online opt to do so on the big screen, overall Index performance is suffering.

One reason retailers are bucking the trend may be that they’ve contended with at least two consumer audiences since the earliest days of eCommerce: those looking to buy online, and those researching online prior to visiting physical stores. Retailers were also among the first to feel mobile’s influence, as on-the-go shoppers demanded access to store information from their devices and began using early “showrooming” tools such as RetailMeNot to check prices while in stores.

(Catalogers, too, have potentially served online and offline audiences simultaneously, but in reality most cross-touchpoint catalog traffic has been one-way, with printed catalog browsers turning to their computers to place orders efficiently rather than online searchers discovering the brand through the Web site before ordering offline.)

While the challenges and opportunities for retailers are in some aspects unique, it can be instructive for merchants to study leading brick-and-mortar merchants in their own product category. And while it’s foolhardy to play “keep up with the Joneses,” such analysis can reveal fresh approaches to audience engagement and new features and functionality that may be worth consideration.  Among the best practices leading retailers in the Index demonstrate:

They work hard to engage visitors past the “one and out.” In addition to maintaining growth in revenue and conversion, retailers are holding the line on the bounce rate, the percentage of visits ending after a single page. The overall bounce rate for retailers grew just 5.3% year over year, to 31.5% — significantly lower than the 19.8% growth in the bounce rate for the index overall, to a high of over 40%.

To achieve that engagement, retail merchants are developing content that informs purchase decisions and encourages participation from brand followers, with a focus on visual elements such as video and hashtag campaigns for user-submitted photos.

MarketLive merchant Beauty Brands puts the focus on individual brands sold online and in stores with rich content. From a “brands” button in the global navigation, shoppers can access extensive brand stories, how-to videos, and shade-matching charts, along with individual products sorted by sub-category. An inspiration page displays user-submitted photos from Instagram and other social sites.

Content example from Beauty Brands

They encourage, rather than discourage, cross-touchpoint usage. Successful brick-and-mortar retailers devote significant space on their eCommerce sites to describing the in-store experience and encouraging store visits, and provide the tools to enable a smooth transition.  In going beyond a listing of store hours and locations, these merchants develop continuity across channels and distinguish their brands from mass merchants by promoting a unique shopping experience.

MarketLive merchant Design Within Reach encourages visits to its “design studios” in a set of dual home page promotions. The store locator page includes a photo gallery and an enticing description that promises “you’ll never see a ‘do not touch’ sign.” A second promotion specifically spotlights the brand’s design consulting services – emphasizing the high level of in-house expertise that stands behind the brand. Shoppers can make appointments online using a simple-to-navigate interface. Further along the path to purchase, shoppers can save the contents of their shopping cart for quick retrieval later on another screen or in the store.

Online promotion of in-store services from DWR

They cater to return as well as new visitors on smartphones. With the recent hand-wringing about “Mobilegeddon”, the skyrocketing costs for mobile paid search, and the hype about mobile “buy” buttons in search and social media, it seems that merchants are focusing mobile efforts predominantly on acquisition. But they would do well to take a page from leading retailers who are focusing just as intently on supporting existing customers — whether through mobile tools for loyalty club members, mobile apps for those familiar with the brand, or personalized paths to purchase that take into account prior browsing and buying behavior. Such efforts to engage returning customers have the potential to pay off handsomely, as returning customers currently comprise 40% of the eCommerce customer base, but account for 61% of total online revenues.

MarketLive merchant Cost Plus World Market fully supports its Explorers Club loyalty program via smartphone, with the capability to sign up and check rewards status via the mobile site. In-store shoppers are reminded to avail themselves of discounts using their mobile devices, thereby encouraging usage.

Loyalty club support from Cost Plus

Signage promoting mobile loyalty club features

Download the latest Performance Index report for further data, including results by sector and product category, and read the official press release for more details. What retailer innovations have you adapted, if any? What retail brands are you watching?

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

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?

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

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.

How to overcome security concerns for the holidays

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?

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

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?

“Buy Now,” “Buy Now” everywhere, but no customers to gain?

The rumor that Google is preparing to debut a “buy” button for search ads on mobile devices has set off a flurry of speculation and recommendations for merchants. But the search giant is just the latest big online player to join the race to provide a shortcut on the path to purchase. Merchants should not only evaluate the options and prepare to experiment; they should acknowledge that these initiatives send clear messages about the shortcomings of their own commerce offerings.

Like Google, Pinterest is rumored to have a “buy” button in the works, while Facebook and Twitter both officially announced initiatives in the past year. Both are still in limited release, with Facebook “buy” buttons popping up occasionally and Twitter’s offering most often seen for event ticketing so far.

Buy button example from Facebook

As merchants evaluate these new options, they should keep in mind the balancing act required to successfully sell on marketplaces without undermining their brands, and determine:

  • What customer information, if any, the host of the “buy” button will share with merchants
  • Which entity conducts the financial transaction
  • What branding elements, if any, will be displayed with the product and transactional content
  • How they’ll pay the “buy” button host. Google is rumored to be integrating the “buy” button into its pay per click search ads, thereby raising the prospect of intense bidding wars to own the “buy” button for popular terms.

But over and above the immediate strategic concerns, the dash to roll out “buy” buttons has other repercussions. Tech titans Google and Facebook are likely using the initiatives, in part, to vie for total Internet dominance, with Amazon and eBay in their sights; and all three social networks are likely scurrying for the “buy” button as a means of demonstrating concretely the ROI of social media.

But there’s a still larger message for merchants to ponder, which is how their own offerings have fallen short and created the void Google and others now seek to fill. While few foresaw just how quickly mobile changed the shopping landscape, merchants’ past decisions to silo eCommerce as just another sales channel alongside — but not integrated with — retail or catalog operations rendered their organizations less nimble when the time came to adapt. With more than 40% of retail traffic to eCommerce sites now coming from mobile devices, but generating barely more than a quarter of online retail revenue, according to the MarketLive Performance Index, the gap was too large for tech giants to ignore.

So while it’s unrealistic to forgo experimenting with the new slew of “buy” buttons, merchants should simultaneously tend to their own brand offerings. Specifically, they should:

Go responsive — in the code and beyond. Merchants should consider responsive design techniques as the best current solution to standardizing the purchase experience across touchpoints, including sharing the alternative-payment options that could rival the convenience of being able to pay with Google. But beyond committing to the design and programming investment responsive design entails, merchants should also adopt a nimble mindset for their businesses that endeavors to break down barriers between online and offline operations so that future changes can be taken in stride.

Evaluate what success on social media looks like for their unique brand, and act accordingly.  While the lack of revenue directly attributable to social media has long been problematic for merchants, that doesn’t mean they should automatically begin plastering Facebook “buy” buttons on all their product promotions. After all, with the convenience of in-Facebook purchasing comes a loss in direct connection with the customer, which should be balanced in the equation. And merchants should recall that early “f-commerce” attempts by large brands such as J.C. Penney, Gamestop and The Gap were all shuttered within a year due to lackluster results.

Former f-commerce experiment by JCPWhether shoppers are now more apt to buy via social media, and whether the improved efficiency of having payment data stored by Facebook will spur sales, remains to be seen. Before merchants enact “buy” buttons, they should gauge the degree of engagement of their brands’ social followers and whether they’re inclined to try the new service in the first place.

Develop online “express lanes” for returning customers. While lifestyle content, product imagery and videos, and comprehensive product information are all invaluable, merchants should also devise ways to enable ultra-efficient reordering for those customers who already know what they want and just want to get it, without paging through a lot of additional information. Merchants should consider offering automated replenishment or subscription services; use social login to speed access to stored account information; and even enable shoppers to pre-set how they’d like to handle refills to speed future orders, in the style of Amazon’s new Dash button. The gizmo is receiving mixed reviews in its limited release so far, but enables Amazon Prime members to customize recurring orders of products from participating manufacturers and make those purchases without using a screen at all.

Amazon dash promo video

Optimize paid search spending now for targeted “buy” button bids in the future. With paid search spending on the rise, spurred largely by product listing ads, merchants are already in competition to win prime spots on mobile devices for top keywords — a contest that may only intensify once “buy” buttons are added to the mix. Merchants should do their utmost to target paid search campaigns so that they can easily add or subtract the “buy” button to segmented product groups.

Which new “buy” buttons have you tried, if any — and why? How are they performing?

Why B2B sellers must begin thinking like B2C merchants – webinar preview

By now, most B2B brands recognize that the Internet has upended the world of corporate purchasing. Customers who once relied on printed catalogs and placed orders through sales reps are increasingly ordering online using self-service tools, using mobile devices for research, and sharing feedback on suppliers via social media.  As a result, B2B online sales are forecast to top $1.1 trillion by 2020, comprising 12% of all B2B sales. To put those numbers in perspective, the forecasted revenues for B2B eCommerce this year total $780 billion, more than double the $334 billion projected for all of direct-to-consumer retail sales online.

In response to this burgeoning growth, business-to-business providers are stepping up investment in online initiatives.  Half of B2B executives in 2013 said they would upgrade their core eCommerce platform by this year, compared with just 12% of eBusiness executives overall.

Initial reports from those who’ve begun focusing on digital initiatives are positive. B2B executives report that customers who’ve migrated online are more likely to try new offerings, make repeat purchases, and spend more than offline-only customers. Simultaneously, the costs are lower to support purchasers taking advantage of self-service online tools; in fact, 56% of vendors report they now service customers who would otherwise have been too expensive to support via traditional offline models.

With such clear signals from the marketplace and the industry, many B2B merchants can rationalize investment in their online offerings. But when it comes to mapping exactly how to invest, the devil is in the details. Best practices abound from the world of B2C eCommerce, which has a decades-long track record compared with many online B2B providers, 45% of whom have been selling products or services online for five years or fewer.

But as B2B vendors strive to follow along, they encounter the same problems many B2C merchants face – a huge array of potential priorities and a seemingly-overwhelming rate of change within the marketplace. Just a few of the challenges B2B providers must contend with:

A merging B2B/B2C marketplace. Some of the largest names in B2C commerce, such as Amazon and Google, are playing a growing role in B2B purchasing. As in direct-to-consumer eCommerce, Amazon is emerging as a force to be reckoned with, having just relaunched and renamed its B2B site, Amazon Business. Fully 45% of B2B purchasers say they’ve purchased on the Amazon site, and a quarter of those report using it frequently. Among younger corporate buyers, Amazon is even more popular: fully 82% of those age 35 or younger say they’re aware of Amazon Business, 63% say they’ve purchased there at least once, and 40% do so frequently.

amazonbusiness

The exponential growth of mobile.  While less than half of B2B executives currently report that even 10% of their online revenues come from mobile devices, workers are increasingly using multiple devices on the job. That means B2B vendors can expect to see the same “mobile-first” shift already underway in B2C eCommerce, where the majority of brand interactions occur via mobile touchpoints. B2B vendors are cognizant of the need to adapt, with 58% reporting that mobile functionality is a top investment priority.

Growing expectations for seamless, unified experiences across touchpoints. While shoppers appreciate the convenience of being able to shop via a variety of touchpoints, research shows they also crave consistency when it comes to products, pricing and promotions. When asked which aspects of the shopping experience should be consistent, participants in the 2014 MarketLive Consumer Shopping Survey ranked product pricing, free shipping policies, and other promotions as the three key areas where they sought a standardized approach.  For B2B brands, that means connecting call center and catalog operations with the eCommerce site, as well as giving sales reps on the road insights into customers’ online activities.

To learn how B2B sellers are grappling with these changes — and what they must do to succeed — register for MarketLive’s webinar next Wednesday, May 20, at 10 a.m. PDT. The session will cover Amazon Business and other non-traditional competitors, examine trends affecting the B2B industry, and recommend three core strategies to shape priorities for 2015-2016. And download the companion whitepaper, which includes detailed research and makes a persuasive case for why B2B brands should “go B2C”.

What B2C principles have proven successful for your B2B business?

Tilting at windmills: the hopeless but crucial quest to reduce cart abandonment

In our previous post reviewing first-quarter results from the MarketLive Performance Index, we discussed the performance impact of mobile’s exponential growth and showed how it’s worth taking a deeper dive into the numbers before blaming mobile for lagging KPIs.

While in that post we specifically addressed engagement metrics, the mobile performance gap that’s most widely lamented is cart abandonment. While the 70.6% cart abandonment rate achieved via computer browsers isn’t ideal, it’s far lower than on smartphones, at 84.6%. As a result, the overall Index abandonment rate rose 1.4% year over year to 76.0% — an all-time high.

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It’s easy to blame these disheartening results on the growing share of shopping visits attributed to mobile phones. But, as is the case with engagement, a closer look reveals that there’s more to the story than meets the eye.

The bad news: cart abandonment may never drop, regardless of how much optimization merchants undertake.  The good news: if handled right, abandonment can become a mere detour on the path to purchase, not an irredeemable disaster.

While the shift to mobile is an underlying factor, the rise in cart abandonment rate reflects a larger trend in consumer behavior. As increasingly-savvy consumers do more research for online and offline purchases, and as they continue to shop across a growing array of digital and offline touchpoints, their journey to purchase has become more circuitous. At one time, high shipping costs far outranked all the other reasons why shoppers left items in the shopping cart. Now, while shipping costs remain the top hurdle to purchase, causing 58% of shoppers to abandon sales, that percentage is followed closely by the 57% of shoppers who use the cart to research total order costs, and the 55% who say they just wanted to save items for later.   Indeed, a whopping three quarters of those who’ve abandoned carts say they actually intend to return to the same site to complete purchases.

Closing the gap between that intent and action is merchants’ new challenge, and one that’s formidable in its own right. In this light, optimizing sites to the utmost remains crucial, but as a way to facilitate — rather than prevent — come-and-go activity, and to ensure that once ready, consumers encounter no obstacles to closing the sale.

Among the measures to deploy:

Support researchers with “save” tools. Given the rising rates at which shoppers use the cart as a research tool, merchants should adopt an “if you can beat them, join them” mentality and ensure that potential customers can easily pick up where they left off, across devices. Easing the wish list creation and sharing process can potentially divert would-be abandoners into using an alternate tool for saving items of interest. But merchants should also consider implementing an explicit “save cart” feature within the shopping cart itself, tying it to a painless signup process — ideally featuring social login — that presents a swift way to access saved items later via mobile or computer.  “Email cart” and “print cart” functions can provide further alternatives for shoppers to store and retrieve product information.

Merchants who optimize their wish lists and shopping carts for researchers should promote the amped-up features — especially a few months from now, when the holiday season begins to ramp up. In 2014, MarketLive merchant Nancy’s Notions promoted wish list creation in an email that asked, “You know what you want. But does everyone else?” The message additionally highlighted top wish list picks — both encouraging shoppers to use the tool and displaying items they might want to add right away.

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Personalized remarketing email. Merchants are increasingly employing remarketing tactics to entice back shoppers who’ve left the site without completing purchases. In 2014, more than a third of merchants in the Internet Retailer Top 500 and Second 500 used abandoned cart emails to recover sales – a 36.7% increase over 2013, according to Listrak. These campaigns are effective, enjoying an average conversion rate of more than 20% — five times higher than a standard promotional campaign.

In order to maximize their effectiveness, abandoned cart notification emails should be as personalized as possible.  Messages that picture the exact item(s) left behind in the cart had a 25% higher transaction rate than those that merely employed a text link back to the brand site, according to Experian. If possible, merchants should include SKU specific images and product details, and personalize messaging further by letting shoppers know whether items are available at nearby outlets. Regardless of personalization capabilities, all merchants should use abandonment emails to message any free shipping offers or free site-to-store services, as well as customer service contact information and value-added content related to the product or the category.

Social media for retargeting. We’ve touched before on the effectiveness of retargeting campaigns that “follow” shoppers across the Internet after departing from a brand’s Web site. While there’s a tricky balance to achieve to avoid seeming creepy, these ads can be effective — and social media presents a low-pressure way to spur further engagement when shoppers are likely at leisure, catching up on the latest news from their feeds and receptive to reminders about shopping they have yet to finish. Although less than half of marketers currently use social retargeting, more than two-thirds say they plan to increase investments in the coming year, according to Marin Software.

MarketLive merchant Intermix invites past browsers to connect with the brand by displaying previously-browsed items and reinforcing brand messaging with text that promises followers will have access to “exclusive designer pieces.”

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A relentless focus on lowering *checkout* abandonment. While reducing cart abandonment may not be possible, checkout abandonment is another matter altogether. After all, by entering checkout, shoppers are signaling a clear intent to purchase, and any deviation from the path merchants lay out for them should be studied closely. To ensure the order process is frictionless, merchants should give their analytics tools a workout by creating fallout reports by device to gain insight into which steps present hurdles on mobile devices as well as on computers. In their analysis they should include secondary checkout paths, such as those for registered users and those employing alternative payments.

As we’ve written previously, checkout is an area where mobile is, indeed, lagging. In the latest Performance Index, checkout abandonment on smartphones was a whopping 59%, compared with 36.6% on computer-based browsers — a significant gap. To improve, merchants should incorporate proven best practices into their mobile offerings, including guest checkout, alternative payments and ample customer service messaging, and do their utmost to streamline the number of steps and required text input fields. Using responsive design to deliver a uniform experience across touchpoints can help merchants significantly improve mobile checkout usability.

How are you combating abandonment?

5 ways to buy time post-“Mobilegeddon”

By now, Google’s much-anticipated “Mobilegeddon” algorithm change has rolled out completely, and some retailers are feeling the pain. Hours after the changes took effect on Tuesday, SEO site Search Engine Watch reported that retailer American Apparel had slipped in natural search results for mobile users, and reports of other changes in rankings have started trickling in as the week-long implementation takes effect.

On the one hand, it’s hard to have much sympathy. Despite the alarm bells being rung this week all over the media, the shift toward favoring sites with mobile-friendly content has been in the cards for a long time. Not only did Google first announce the April 21 change in February, giving merchants months to prepare, but the search engine giant has been moving inexorably in this direction over the past year. As we’ve discussed previously, prior algorithm adjustments favoring “contextual search” cues prioritized sites attuned to mobile users; the addition last November of the “mobile-friendly” badge was another sign of Google’s intent. On the paid search side, refinements of Google Shopping policies and parameters to favor mobile-friendly ads and landing pages further indicated that Google has made mobile effectiveness a top goal.

And, of course, Google isn’t making this shift in a vacuum. Most merchants need only look at their eCommerce site analytics to recognize the impact mobile devices have had on shopping. As we’ve reported previously, more than 40% of holiday visits and 25% of holiday revenues were attributed to mobile devices and the majority of marketing emails are viewed first via mobile devices — just two of the reasons we’ve long urged merchants to adopt mobile as a top priority.

At the same time, we appreciate that small- to mid-sized merchants especially face significant resource challenges when it comes to optimizing their sites for mobile shoppers. Because of its prominence, perhaps Tuesday’s change will serve as a catalyst for merchants playing catch-up to commit to a “mobile first” philosophy. As MarketLive CEO Ken Burke said in a recent article for ROI Magazine titled “How Mobile is Changing SEO”,

“Google’s algorithm update puts new urgency on the proposition and promises to widen the revenue growth gap between retailers that have embraced the mobile shopping revolution and those that haven’t.”

Luckily, those who’ve found their mobile search rankings compromised since Tuesday have a few quick options for recovering their standing while they work to further perfect their mobile offerings. Among the ways to regain visibility:

Up mobile paid search spend via PLAs. Google’s paid Product Listing Ads continue to soar in popularity, and their prominence within mobile search and image-centric format give merchants an opportunity to win back visibility if natural search results are sagging. The hitch: Google gives priority to paid placements with mobile-friendly landing pages, so merchants should optimize images and content accordingly to maximize their chances for a successful campaign. And, of course, depending on merchants’ paid search budgets, this workaround can prove an expensive proposition as anything other than a temporary measure.

Piggyback on mobile-friendly sites for visibility. While the flagship eCommerce site may need further mobile optimization, brand outposts on social media and in third-party marketplaces may well earn the coveted “mobile-friendly” badge. Major players such as Facebook and eBay are mobile-optimized to the hilt, and can give merchants a leg-up in visibility as a result via a boosted investment in marketplace listings, usage of social login and social sharing tools, and of course fresh and relevant content on brand social outposts.

Optimize the top 20%. Because the new algorithm assigns “mobile-friendly” status at the page level, merchants can still benefit even if they must adopt a piecemeal approach. Even if the numbers don’t hew exactly to the 80/20 rule, a large majority of merchants’ revenues and traffic are likely to be generated by a relatively small percentage of products and pages. Merchants should identify their most popular products, categories and content and set about creating mobile-optimized versions, if they don’t exist already. To justify further mobile optimization beyond the first batch of upgrades, merchants should track results — in search results rankings as well as in visits and revenue.

Streamline code. Removing mobile-only “page not found” errors and replacing them with appropriate mobile redirects, stripping out calls to content that’s potentially unplayable on mobile devices such as Flash-based video, and removing interstitial ads prompting mobile users to download the brand’s app all count in merchants’ favor in the new algorithm. For a detailed list of code-level changes that can help enhance search rankings, download MarketLive’s “April 2015 Google Mobile SEO Algorithm Update and Reference Guide.”

Boost site speed. As we’ve previously discussed, mobile site speed plays a crucial role in consumers’ expectations, and it’s a factor in search ranking overall as well. As part of their code-streamlining exercise, merchants should strip out obsolete tags, establish a speed-friendly page structure, and consider using a content delivery network if they don’t have one already. For a more detailed list of site speed fixes, read Ken Burke’s contribution to the eTailing Blog titled “Top Speed Hacks for Better Mobile Experiences.”

Of course, these quick fixes will only get merchants so far. To serve shoppers on a variety of devices — as well as to enhance their “mobile-friendly” status in Google — they should consider upgrading to responsive design as a longer-term solution and adopt a mobile-first outlook to stay abreast of shopping changes that go beyond the search engine.

How has “Mobilegeddon” affected your site, if at all?