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Serve customers the way they like to shop and buy

December 6, 2006

There are many traditional and e-Commerce only stores that hope the Web sites they developed this year will ring in record sales over the Web for the Christmas and Holidays period. To effQuestionively create a summary of what improvements eCommerce marketers made in 2006, here's a Q&A with Digital River, a global marketing firm based in Minneapolis.

Overall, Digital River assists eCommerce companies of all sizes, in both the B2C (business-to-consumer) and B2B (business-to-business) markets, create tailored marketing strategies that drive Internet traffic and boost their average eTailor order values and maximize overall conversion rates.

The strategies work with CompUSA, Symantec and Adobe, serving both of the above markets.

Question: Since the Internet is truly a very interactive medium, customer experience has demanded attention since the first few sales occurred online. What did eCommerce companies and eTailors learn this year about serving customers better through their Web sites?

Answer: From a typical consumer experience point of view, users continue to look for relevance. What is right for them differs a lot from one segment to the next. Some consumers do their homework and conduct a lot of due diligence before making a purchase. Others simply wish to find a promotion and to be done with it. This year, eCommerce Web sites have learned to better serve customers in the ways they really like to shop and buy on the Web.

Question: Can eTailors sell well to both of these two consumer groups, or must serious eCommerce retailers focus on either class of consumer who need a lot of information and time before making an online purchase, or those who are ready to buy right away in a click or two?

Answer: A well-planned and organized, highly customer-focused Web site certainly can serve both contemplative and decisive shoppers. One method in doing both is to use customer "self-help" technology. In the software industry, a free trial is a pretty popular tactic. Once someone raises their hand and clicks on a free-trial link, navigation unfolds to give them more information and registration for a free download.

What they actually see depends on what specific link they click on. For very decided buyers, an eCommerce site may have an express checkout box to click. 80.2 percent of people buy only one item, so it's really easy to express-buy if they so desire. But those who want to learn more about the product can click on other links and get more information before they make their final purchase.

Many eCommerce marketers think of their online store's Web pages and site landing pages, but don't think as much about the buying process itself. One of the many problems we keep seeing all the time is limiting shoppers' navigation capabilities as they go through the actual buying process. eMarketers will show customers all of their great offers, and all the other things they may buy start to drop to help consumers stay on the right path and complete the transactions they've started in the first place.

It used to be a more-or-less standardized procedure for the checkout process to show the shopper a sort of buying confirmation page and then an order summary page. Now we eliminate one step. We think less clicks are better than more...

Question: Was "self-help" technology developed in response to consumer demand, or did it pre-empt customer queries?

Answer: Most online consumers have been waiting for this way to navigate a site for a long time, and this year, more sophisticated eMarketers began using something like "self-help" tools. This year more eCommerce site owners changed their overall online behavior a lot more than consumers did. That was a function of better tools, more domain knowledge on the part of eMarketers and overall increased competition in online commerce.

Question: Did most eCommerce companies, both large and small, finally discovered the Holy Grail of efficient eCommerce site design? What other important improvements did they make in this area for this year?

Answer: eCommerce retailers are increasingly testing multiple variables and many platforms on any given page. It's a lot more complicated than traditional A to B testing if you will. They may vary the message, promotion, pricing, product featured, voice of the communication, even the color of the "Buy Now" button and/or the size of page headers or a few links. Anything that one can imagine can be tested...

Question: How much has learning about search engine optimization advanced in 2006?

Answer: In both paid and organic search, there is a lot more optimization and SEO happening right now to drive conversion to their online stores. Search engine optimization is growing but is also more mature than in 2005. Our clients were getting an average increase of about 20 percent from SEO techniques two or three years ago. Now it's more like a 4 to 5 percent increase only, but it's a steady increase. The gains are smaller since the competing base of today's eCommerce sites is actually larger than it was in 2003 or in 2004.

Overall, search is also becoming more mature with contextual advertising. There is good activity out of the organic space for international and local-level expansion.

Question: In reaching out to international online customers, are eCommerce site owners and managers actively pursuing international sales? Or are cross-border transactions too challenging to American-based sites?

Answer: That's a good question. It's actually a land rush! There are cultural, tax and fulfillment issues to consider, so there continues to be a strong bias in partnering. Going it alone in some sense is a big waste of time. eMarketers go to see experts for that kind of help. Digital River has made a strong push in 2006 for global-minded technology. Overall, e-com firms can now employ a "smart sourcing engine" that self-help customers and assists them fulfilling orders on the basis of the lowest price or shipping cost and actual inventory availability.

Question: Aren't some of these "smart sourcing" practices already common among brick-and-mortar retailers? How are these eMarketers faring in the online world? Is the playing field level now, or closer to it, for pure-plays or multi-channel brands?

Answer: eCommerce retail multi-channel has catched up faster in 2006 and is growing even more rapidly than actual pure-plays. eCom stores like Target and Wal-Mart are moving aggressively and are actually doing very well online.

There is a lot of opportunities to optimize the overall consumer market and nudge segments into the most cost-effective channels. The Internet also allows traditional offline sellers to even further expand their product lines. eRetailers are going into very interesting categories that they wouldn't go into in other, more traditional retail channels.

For example, Chadwick's of Boston, MA has about 4 to 8 pages in its online catalog devoted to bridesmaid's dresses. They devote more space to the bridal category and expand the assortment online, whereas it would take up too much real estate in a store or print catalog. also has a much deeper products catalog online, both in existing and new categories.

Source: CNN Money

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