3 Consumer Shopping Trends Online Retailers Need to Know

From connecting with brands on Facebook to the importance of being found in Google, consumer research data helps merchants identify the best strategies for connecting with online shoppers.

The world of online shopping is a never-ending barrage of fads, trends and change. Just when you think you have a handle on what’s new, along comes a new (or revived) trend to negotiate.

New research published earlier this month by PowerReviews in conjunction with the E-tailing Group gives online retailers unique insight as to how consumers research, select and purchase goods online and helps to identify the best strategies for connecting with consumers.

The 2011 Social Shopping Study

The study, The 2011 Social Shopping Study, is based on a survey of more than 1,000 consumers about their online shopping habits, as well as their level of engagement with brands and retailers across various online channels.

In the survey introduction, Lauren Freedman, president, the E-tailing Group said that 2011 has been a volatile year for ecommerce with a multitude of dynamics in play from social media and community to mobile.

"This year’s survey explored consumer utilization of social media across a range of merchants and channels to understand perception, interest, and propensity to buy based on that engagement,” she wrote. “We wanted to know the implications for researching and shopping behavior, particularly as it relates to Facebook, which is the beneficiary of much of the community attention.”

Trend #1: Product Research Remains Top Purchasing Decision Tool

One consumer shopping trend the survey set out to determine was if user-generated content (UGC) continued to play a role in consumer shopping choices.  

Findings suggest that consumers do invest greater time in online research before making a purchase, as 15 percent of respondents said that 90 percent or more of all online shopping time was spent researching products (compared to just 21 percent in 2010).

Respondents confirmed that search engines, like Google, are still the main starting point for research by 44 percent, followed by gathering information from retailer and manufacturer websites.  To that end it is apparent that search engine optimization (SEO) is still a crucial task for online retailers.

The important take away for merchants is knowledge of where consumers start their product research. Nadim Hossain, VP of marketing at PowerReviews, said that the first step in the research process for consumers is Google.

"Google is where people start, so SEO is really important to online retailers. Our research found that product reviews are the number one factor impacting the buying decision," explained Hossain. "

Trend #2: Social Shopping and Customer Reviews as an Influencer

Another big question playing on the minds of many retailers is just how much influence social media has on the customer’s purchase decision.  

Social shopping and social media has been a huge topic for online retailers this year, but only 2 percent of respondents used Facebook or other social recommendations as their main research starting point. Forty-nine percent of those surveyed said they have never researched products on social sites. 

Where social media does shine is in Facebook Business Pages and Facebook newsfeeds, with 13 percent of respondents saying those social tools impacted their buying behavior.

“Merchants are testing social media by trying to integrate it and understand how to monetize it,” said Lauren Freedman.  “Retailers typically evaluate then go first for the promotions to increase their fan base, in a way that is similar to email list building.”

When it comes to user-generated content, a number of community and social tools impact buying behavior, customer reviews  (user-generated product reviews) influence purchasing the most with 59 percent of survey respondents, followed by customer Q&As (42 percent) and community forums (26 percent).

Consumers still favor writing product reviews as an activity.  The survey indicated that 70 percent of respondents participated in “rate a product purchased” compared to 49 percent who engage in using the “Like” button for a retailer or manufacturer.

Trend #3: Mobile Phones Empower Consumers In-Store

Mobile phones are also a popular influence in customer purchase decisions. Usage in the retail store is also increasing as mobile phones give consumers immediate access to research, price shopping and promotional coupons for immediate redemption.

Merchants are interested in the mobile phone and the tablet audience because these are the consumers who are going to shop and consume.  Lauren Freedman said that retailers see the traffic penetration coming from this demographic and online retailers view mobile shoppers as an audience ripe for business.

What's most interesting about the mobile portion of the study is seeing the break-down of how consumers use mobile phones. In response to the question "How likely are you to do each of the following using your mobile phone when researching a product while in a physical store?" the top three answers were:

  1. Access promotional coupons for redemption at the store (38 percent)
  2. Look for competitive pricing at Amazon (36 percent)
  3. Look for competitive prices on products at retailers online other than Amazon (36 percent)

 Other activities shoppers use their mobile phone for include scanning bar codes, scanning QR Codes (quick response codes) or use mobile apps to receive points, rewards or badges.

“Mobile phones are the merging of the offline experience in-store, and it all goes back to pricing,” said Freedman.  “Consumers use a mobile phone to check sales and specials, to look up store information pre-visit and to scan reviews for product information while in-store.”

Predictions for Mobile and Social

In the coming year both Hossain and Freedman predict that mobile phones and social tools will grow in importance as more consumers use these mediums for product research and shopping.

“The mobile piece will continue to accelerate fast but the social will be more challenging for the retailers to understand, explore and monetize,” said Freedman. “Retailers will continue investment in both areas and see continued sales growth in mobile versus exploration in social.”

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