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The Top 3 E-Commerce Lessons from eTail West 2015

After a heart-stopping cab ride through snowy New York, a delayed flight, and a missed connection in Chicago, last Tuesday, we made our descent into the Palm Springs airport. When the extent of my climatic transition became clear--from palms_etail_westtundra to tropics--the travel struggles faded into irrelevance.

And so began eTail West 2015.

Thousands of retailers from all over the country gathered at the JW Marriott in Palm Desert to learn about the present and future of digital commerce. I had the pleasure of attending nearly every keynote address and several panel discussions to bring you this modest, but relatively comprehensive coverage of this exciting moment in retail's propulsive digital evolution.

First, let's put a name to the driving force behind online retailers priorities in the 21st century: customer experience. Whether we're talking about mobile web/apps, optimization, testing or personalization, it's all about improving the customer experience. Why? Well, if it's not obvious by now, happy customers convert.

From the minds behind brands like Hanes, Dell, Target, and Staples as well as vendors like Silverpop, Needly, and Visa comes this inside look at e-commerce in 2015. Here are some of the ideas and initiatives that stood out at eTail West:

1. The Symbiotic Relationship Between In-Store & Digital

Jason Feldman, President, Director to Consumer at Hanes was the first to emphasize the importance of the brick-and-mortar experience. According to Feldman, people still want to go shopping, "For every dollar that was spent online, $6 were spent researching the product online, but ultimately shopping at a brick and mortar."

The main point is that improvements to the digital customer experience must not ignore the in-store experience. During a panel discussion reviewing the roles and responsibilities needed to further e-commerce organizations, one participant noted that while it was once a question of how we make the online business look like the store, now it is: how does the store become more of a digital business?

The notion of the in-store experience spanned several discussions throughout the conference. There was talk of iPads in dressing rooms for upsells and easy access to different sizes and styles, body scanning technology, and more. The digital disruptions of organizations and the "offline" experience is key, but one of the more interesting considerations for the marriage of in-store and digital experience fits nicely into our next topic: mobile!

2. Mobile

Jamil Ghani, VP Enterprise Strategy at Target spoke of blurring the lines between stores and mobile. The best customer experience for Target is one that builds on store data, something Ghani sees as an essential competitive differentiator. For Target customers, context matters, and it is mobile that brings the in-store and the digital experience together.

An example of how Target used in-store data to improve the customer experience is with their mobile app. Target found that approximately half of their in-store customers left without what they had planned on buying so the Target "taught" their app to ask: "Can I help you find something?" With a app experience that helps customers find their products down to their exact location on the shelf, the melding of online and in-store materializes. There is lots to learn from one of the country's top retailers. They have clearly set the bar with a mobile app that customers will not only download, but engage with visit after visit.

While not necessarily framed in this context, Target is not ignorant to the importance of personalizing the customer experience. They used data to meet and exceed customer expectations, which now (more than ever) requires personalization.

3. Personalization Expectations

And those were the exact words of Cindy Go, Senior Manager of Personalization at Staples as she spoke alongside Graeme Grant, VP of Predictive Intelligence at Demandware (a Maxymiser partner!). She called personalization "a vital capability to meet and exceed customer expectations" in front of the audience at eTail West. Staples asked how they could become an organization with a massive amount of data, into an organization who turns data into value (one of the most important questions retailers can ask themselves these days).

computer_etail_westStaples took their data challenges (storage, systems and insights) and turned them into a process in which they evaluate, understand, compare, enforce, and rank their offers. They recognize the all important predictive element by using similarities between visitors to identify what someone wants, even before they have engaged with the brand. Now that's forward thinking! In a recent article, Graeme Grant of Demandware outlined what Staples is working towards, writing "The next generation of personalization requires predictive intelligence that doesn't just react to a customer's actions (e.g. an abandoned cart message), but proactively predicts what a customer wants before that customer even knows it."

But what does this mean for your marketing budget? Scott Pulsipher, President and COO of Needly helped us understand in his keynote address, "Why Investing $1 in Customer Experience is Better than Investing $1 in Traffic." The title speaks for itself, according to Pulsipher, brands are misallocating their marketing budgets towards traffic, rather than improving the customer experience. The crux of his argument towards investment in a better customer experience relied on the notion that 35-40% of visitors have a conditional intent to buy (think back to Target's in-store visitors who leave without what they came for). This critical group won't convert unless you meet certain criteria (and are that much more likely to buy from a competitor if you don't!). It is this group who is far more likely to convert when retailers use in-session and historical data to improve their experience in real time by helping them find what they need, answering their specific questions, and clearly presenting trusted input from users like them. I won't put words in the speaker's mouth, but I would imagine Staples is a shining example of serving conditional intent visitors their ideal experience. If you're looking for other examples, he offered eSalon, Free People, and Nikon as examples of brands offering a great customer experience.

Thanks to the presenters at eTail West, it is clear how any discussion of e-commerce travels from customer experience to in-store to mobile to personalization and back again. I found these all-encompassing words from Paul Walsh, CIO of Dell the most indisputable of the entire week: "If we don't remove the friction from the customer's experience, your loyal customers today will be your former customers tomorrow." His advice on how to do that? Use data to build patterns and predict what our customers are going to do. Walsh wasn't alone, as you either heard as an attendee or have learned from reading this post, that is exactly 2015's call-to-action for retailers and it ripples into every digital touchpoint.

And finally, this wouldn't be the CXO Blog if we didn't talk about testing. Testing is the glue that holds the vendors and retailers together (and there was plenty of panel discussions to prove it). But let's talk about a/b and multivariate testing in real terms. The retailer who returned from work after their trip to Palm Springs with a quote from Loren McDonald, VP of Industry Relations at Silverpop which reads: "Stored payment systems are the single biggest driver of increasing conversion rate and reducing friction" has presented their organization with a task. What design changes, new vendors, and impacts to the user experience will drive them closer to, or help them achieve a frictionless checkout experience? Whether the choose to begin on the web or consider frictionless checkout an important mobile initiative, the only way to find out how their customers will react is to test. No two customers are alike and neither are the retailers they love, so by believing in the data, setting aside personal biases, and kicking off or improving a culture of testing within your organization you can take the guesswork out of this and every other customer experience initiative in 2015, and beyond.

Looking for a testing solution to support your digital initiatives in 2015? We can help! Give us a call to find out how to optimize conversions in the funnel, and everywhere else.

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