Survey Says: Customer Interaction Key to Online Sales

Merchandising results from the e-tailing group's 11th Annual Mystery Shopping Survey reveal that leading online store owners are optimizing features to involve their customers. We highlight which ones and how.
Merchandising results from the e-tailing group's 11th Annual Mystery Shopping Survey reveal that leading online store owners are optimizing features to get sales.

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"Smart merchants are taking execution to a higher level; elevating the online shopping experience to provide customers with increased efficiency while fostering retention," explains Lauren Freedman, President of the e-tailing group. "Throughout our review of 100 Web sites we observed merchants pulling out all the stops to rethink promotions, refine search, retool content/information, and reinvent community."

Rethink, Refine, Retool, Reinvent

Freedman goes on to say that e-commerce site owners must rethink promotions with an array of tactics to tackle a tough economy if they want to remain competitive. The playbook on promotion must remain imaginative as price is likely to be a key factor in consumer decision-making, she says.

To that end, online merchants are creatively rethinking tactics to get the sale immediately, evidenced by limited-time-only promotions jumping to 42 percent penetration in 2008 from 18 percent in 2007, according to the survey. The only measurable decrease in presence was "Gift with Purchase," perhaps as it is less economical than the other tactics benchmarked, the study says. Here are some key findings of the survey:

  • Online Outlets saw a 14 percent increase in penetration year-over-year. With 86 percent of merchants now deploying this tactic, a dedicated well-merchandised location to attract price-sensitive shoppers deserves attention.

  • Free shipping, not surprisingly, continues to be a promotional standard offered by more merchants in diverse manners that complement their business models including an increase in conditional free shipping to a store (26 percent in 2008 vs. 15 percent in 2007).

  • Refining search with the goal of getting shoppers to the right product is a priority, according to the research. "Putting control in the hands of the customer, merchants are capitalizing on search usage and tools via on site capabilities from landing page sorts to creative ways of finding product," says Freedman.

    Keyword Search is of course the standard bearer as 100 percent of the sites surveyed have the feature. Beyond this a majority of merchants are implementing an in-depth refined search (85 percent), providing guided navigation (63 percent), and landing page sorts (77 percent) in part replacing advanced search (15 percent vs. 23 percent) as these newly tracked metrics provide fewer click-throughs to reach the desired product. Such "in-your-face" merchandising is ideal in tough economic times as it pinpoints product first; placing it squarely in the front of the consumer for consideration and quick purchase.

  • Retooling content augments category, product and multi-channel efforts through rich media enhancements. A complete set of detailed product information coupled with wise utilization of rich media gives consumers the confidence to buy, according to the survey.

    Given this trend, e-tailers are using more multimedia. For instance, video adds a dimension as 65 percent of the EG100 vs. 45 percent last year embrace the opportunity to show more.

    "Creative treatment with imagery for a true picture of the item is a win-win coupled with category-specific capabilities that encourage shoppers to purchase more like view-in-a-room," the survey says. "Customer education is paramount and here too category-centric content elevates the shopping experience while interactive tools ensure customers make the right choice."

  • Reinventing community is timely as traction takes hold; impacting the way we communicate. From blogs to boards the customer is now a true participant in the shopping experience, Freedman says. "Share is a new metric in the e-tailing group 11th Annual Merchant Survey and strategies range from the old-fashioned to the new fangled as merchants test a variety of methodologies throughout their sites. Look for increased usage as shoppers become more comfortable with sharing and merchants understand the viral power of cost-effective community initiatives."

  • Ratings and reviews are also elevated as user-generated content plays a greater role for consumers with 58 percent, up from 50 percent, of the EG100 incorporating this tactic into their shopping experience and 24 percent selling by top-rated products.

  • Refer/E-Mail a Friend features are also being embraced by more Web shop owners as 81 percent employ them now, compared to 74 percent last year, according to the survey. Likewise, the use of blogs as marketing tools is on the rise: Twenty-six percent report using them this year while last year only 10 percent did. Finally, the use of community boards increased 10 percent to 26 percent this year.

Summing it Up: Involve the Customer

Best-in-class execution most often combines promotional, informational, and communal messaging. "From time-savings tools to custom control multi-tactical initiatives go a long way toward brand building," summarizes Freedman. "Merchants must facilitate retention experiences as customers who invest time with a brand have a greater likelihood to return. Ultimately customer involvement and interactivity should reinforce differentiation and result in sales."

Michelle Megna is managing editor of

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