This past holiday buying season, retailers faced tough realities as they were forced to re-evaluate their e-commerce strategies and online presences. Surviving an increasingly competitive battlefield, keeping up with the constant push of retail innovation, and accommodating consumers’ demands for an engaging online experience has given retailers a major challenge, and the shakeout has already started with some of the biggest brick-and-mortar retailers announcing big losses and store closures.
The biggest challenge isn’t in accommodating long lines at the store – consumers are shopping online in record numbers, and the most recent Cyber Monday showed a record $3.45 billion spent online, a 12.1% year-over-year increase. Mobile in particular, is on the rise, with Black Friday the first day in retail history that's drivien over $1 billion in mobile revenues. Traditional retailers who either ignored online sales, didn’t put enough resources into it, or failed to pay attention to creating a more engaging online experience, lost big and will have to adapt to survive.
Online Buyers Want it Fast, and They Want it All
'Consumers are demanding a higher level of engagement and more features on retail websites,' said Jeev Trika, CEO of CrowdReviews.com, a crowd-driven review site. 'Online sales are rising, and consumers are demanding a richly interactive experience and incentives to shop online rather than at the physical store. To keep online shoppers loyal, retailers are adapting their online sites to include more multimedia features like videos, links to social feeds, and online reviews.'
Some retailers have been making it their mission to make their websites equal to, or better than, any brick-and-mortar experience could ever be. Multimedia and virtual reality have gained popularity, with innovations like Sephora’s app that lets consumers upload a photo of themselves and virtually try on more than 3,000 shades of lipstick. Online retailer eBags also optimized its online presence, especially for mobile users, yielding a 20 to 30% improvement in response time on its website, while at the same time offering consumer experience enhancements including user reviews and a chat feature, in addition to rich graphics.
The End of the Minimalist Website
Some web designers and e-commerce managers have embraced the design choice of minimalism, delivering sleek online experiences, with the mobile versions being even more Spartan. This trend, however, is less of a design choice and more a response to the realities of how download speed affects consumer bounce rates. Consumers will begin to abandon a site after just a three second wait.
'Slow download speeds have forced some webmasters into a minimalist design mode, especially in e-commerce, where consumers are quick to move on if the site does not perform well,' said Mark Verkhovski, president of the American Webmasters Association. 'But minimalism doesn’t work well in an environment in which consumers are looking for more information and more engagement. The better choice is to design for the consumer rather than designing for the download, and then incorporate back-end technologies that enhance performance. In this way, webmasters are able to give consumers the features and graphics they want, while still offering acceptable download speeds that keep visitors on-site.'
Minimalist designs may download fast, but they don’t generate sales. Macy’s, for example, offers a rich design with plenty of interaction and product detail, but would-be buyers this past holiday season experienced delays after the website crashed under heavy traffic.
Striking the perfect balance between a heavy, feature-rich website and speedy downloads presents a fundamental dilemma to retailers, who recognize that consumers will buy more, and be more loyal if a site offers them a more engaging experience. Unfortunately, that engagement often comes at the cost of performance. Rather than slimming down the website though, retailers are seeing the wisdom of keeping a more engaging design, multimedia features, and calls to third party functions, while mitigating the heaviness of the site with back-end management technologies like Content Delivery Networks, and orchestration tools that prioritize download so that the most important, and most visible, components of the site download first.
Informed consumers are guiding the retail discussion
'Retail strategies are rapidly moving out of the marketing department’s control and into the hands of informed consumers,' said CrowdReviews.com’s Trika. 'The marketing department can regain that control by implementing a strategy of two-way consumer dialog with features like online chats, consumer reviews, and by being responsive and attentive to social media mentions.'
Customer loyalty is more difficult to come by, and retailers must also pay careful attention to the customer relationship and customer experience. 'Customers may love a given retailer, and they may even enjoy going to the eCommerce website, but because of the increasing amount of competitive information available, they are more likely to bolt if they find an equivalent product at a lower price,' said Roman Kowalski, representative of KidsToyStop.com, a site offering information on some of the best toys in hundreds of different categories. 'We’re seeing the biggest retailers – both online and brick-and-mortar – putting substantial resources into creating a more engaging customer experience, and using big data and analytics tools to learn more about their customers and how best to keep them on the site.'
The Age of Mobile eCommerce
'Before innovations like Responsive Web Design, webmasters often created mobile versions of their sites which were bereft of features and detail,' said Verkhovski. 'But mobile sales are up, and consumers are turning to their smartphones as a primary means of shopping – and retailers need for those mobile sites to be as feature-rich as their primary desktop versions.'
The correct approach is to design for the consumer first – giving them the highly engaging experience they demand -- in order to keep them on the site, keep them buying, and keep them coming back. Once that experience has been created, more companies are using supporting technologies like Content Delivery Networks and content orchestration in conjunction with a customer-focused strategy.