Balancing art and science in online merchandising
Editor's Note: The following is a guest post from Trevor Legwinski, chief strategy officer of SearchSpring.
In e-commerce, online merchandising refers to the art of displaying products or offers on a site with the goal of boosting sales and maximizing profits. It's the second part of this definition — boosting sales and maximizing profits — that's at the heart of this definition. Creating a unique shopping experience is one part of the equation, but that alone doesn't mean shoppers will buy something. Effective online merchandising moves the positive experience to purchase.
Today, merchandising is viewed as one of the most critical and sought-after positions on an e-commerce team, and truly talented practitioners can be hard to come by. They have a unique intuition and talent when it comes to romancing products, building collections and emphasizing those details most apt to resonate with shoppers.
However, many organizations lucky enough to be well-resourced in this area often make the mistake of saddling their merchandisers with other responsibilities, including product data entry and adding products to the site during web refreshes. While data entry and bulk uploads are essential, these are time-intensive tasks that can impede a merchandiser's full potential.
To address this, we see several merchandising tasks that are prime for automation:
Automated "profit-aware" search results
Today, intelligent search technologies make it easier than ever for online shoppers to find what they're looking for through artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing (NLP) capabilities. Advances in AI provide deep understanding of variances in search keywords, synonyms and even misspellings, helping shoppers find exactly what they're looking for in their terminology of choice (PJ's vs. pajamas and pants vs. trousers, for example).
Getting shoppers to the product they want is only half the battle though. From there, it's up to merchandisers to drive conversions and maximize profits. New automated techniques enable search results to be displayed according to a wide variety of rules, such as which tend to drive the most conversions, which yield the highest profits and which represent the most popular brands. This method, sometimes known as "product boosting," enables merchandisers to automatically play the best hand for the business as it moves the customer closer to the point of purchase.
E-commerce personalization refers to the ability to deliver more individually satisfying experiences that drive conversions by collecting and analyzing data points on customer behavior across various channels. Today, personalization tools can "learn" from past behavior, enabling products to be displayed in a manner that aligns to a user's personal preferences, piquing interest and instigating more purchases. For example, a shopper may search for a particular blouse, and based on past behavior, the site "knows" which color the shopper likes best and will display the blouse in that color. By appealing to shoppers' individual tastes, product showcasing becomes intrinsically more influential and powerful.
Merchandisers are often charged with creating compelling, aesthetically pleasing landing pages for new products and promotions. But that's where their job should end — they shouldn't have to focus on more mundane details like scheduling these pages to go live on a certain date. Automation can help to stay ahead of promotional calendars by scheduling pages and ensuring their automatic launch at programmed times.
At a high level, marketing automation technologies present some challenges, including data quality (a lack of accurate, up-to-date and complete customer and prospect information) and the time and budget required for purchase and implementation. Although there are concerns, automation can be very valuable for some marketing aspects, including scheduling site content (landing pages, new products and promotions) to go live and dynamically altering site content and search results to better convert hot leads. Currently, marketing automation tends to be more helpful to product data, customer lead-generation and web content specialists than it is to creative marketing teams and product photography, which increasingly fall under the marketing function.
Automation needs to be considered as an enabler, not a substitute, as it will never be able to replace humans in several key areas, including:
Visual Merchandising — No matter how much we'd like them to, machines cannot yet "see." Only real, live merchandisers possess the right kind of eye to determine what lighting works best in product pictures and how to best display images within a brand's unique layout. Website real estate becomes the canvas where merchandisers create and tell their compelling story.
Analytics — Machines can certainly help e-commerce companies identify trends like star products, unsung heroes and underperformers. But that's where the value of machines ends. From that point, merchandisers are needed to put these findings to work, using them to guide screen real estate allocation decisions and create the most strategic, visually appealing product displays.
In the world of e-commerce, companies of all sizes are competing shoulder-to-shoulder, which means they must find opportunities to stand out and close sales. Successful online merchandising is essential, but these team members must be liberated from non-strategic, time-consuming tasks. Automation certainly plays a supporting role in the "science" category, but real people with real intuition will always be needed to craft the types of product narratives or "art" that push shoppers over the finish line to purchasing.