NRF Online Merchandising Workshop: Where Online Retailers Are Focusing for Holiday and Beyond

Last month we attended the NRF Online Merchandising Workshop in LA, and it was a great opportunity to catch up with our customers, meet new retailers, and hear some great presentations from VF Corporation, Zazzle, Julep Beauty, Backcountry, eBags and more.

The one-on-one conversations with Merchants and the keynote presentations carry the same themes across companies of all sizes and across verticals. With only 125 days left (and counting) until Black Friday, these conversations provided some great insight in to what’s top of mind for retailers during the most stressful time of their year, and a sneak peek in to what they will deliver this holiday season. 

Some of the most popular topics were:

When to start promoting for holiday: seems like a funny conversation to have in July, but a number of retailers said they already had their holiday shopping gift guides live on their site, and it was attracting a significant portion of their onsite traffic. When it comes to timing, most retailers were questioning when to begin their holiday promotions -- carefully balancing when to release pricing and specials, and knowing that customers are holding out for last-minute deals and price drops. Many retailers noted the frustrations around transparent pricing by Amazon and a few other mega-retailers last year, publishing their “lowest prices of the season” as early as October – ensuring shoppers that those prices were the best they could get all season long. Many retailers felt their hands were forced to drop prices. Others kept their set pricing with negative customer reaction, causing some to miss their holiday goals. The pressure is on, and most retailers identified November 1 as their target start date for the holiday promotions blitz. Some are even waiting for the big guys to release their “lowest prices of the season” guides and will then follow suit.

     Attribution is tough – and a huge focus: understanding the path to conversion is a tough nut to crack, especially in the new omnichannel world where consumers use multiple touchpoints to make a single purchase, and internal management wants to know hard data. This has lead many retailers to invest in attribution; carefully tracking their online marketing efforts to determine what gets “credit” for the sale, instead of giving credit to the “last click.” Retailers noted that it is very difficult to determine the numbers when online and offline worlds collide – like when a shopper uses digital channels for research and then makes a purchase in a store. As one of the presenters from The North Face mentioned in her keynote, a key to enabling better customer service and satisfaction when it comes to converged online and offline sales is training the in-store staff, and creating a culture where it eventually “doesn’t matter what group gets the credit” if they all add to the sale. No doubt, the area of attribution will be a big area of retail investment in the coming years.

     How to plan for the converged world: planning to ensure inventory gets where it needs to be was another concern. In conversations with retailers, we advised them to analyze customer patterns: where shoppers purchase items, where the items were sourced from and even where items are returned. This analysis is very valuable in determining inventory plans. From there, retailers can more accurately plan and allocate inventory to support both the online and offline customer behavior. As we head into the holiday season, the need for accurate enterprise-wide inventory visibility, and providing that information to associates, is even more critical to the brand-wide customer experience.

      Improving the search / navigation / usability of the site(s): Aside from some of the big ideas and standard holiday pricing pressure, most conversations we had centered around continuing to improve the basics of the site. Reinvesting in search and navigation came up time and time again (FitForCommerce blogged about what a big topic it was at the event as well). Obviously getting shoppers on their path quickly and allowing them to find what they need fast is critical, but it was definitely interesting to hear just how much effort is still going in to honing the search and navigation experience. Adding new elements to search and navigation like typeahed, inventive navigation refinements, and new navigation categories like gift guides, specialized boutiques and flash sales were top of mind, in addition to searchandising and making search-driven product recommendations. (Oracle can help!)

      Reducing cart abandonment: always a hot topic that is top of mind for every online retailer. Getting shoppers to the cart is often less then half the battle; getting them to click “buy” and complete the transaction is much more difficult. While retailers carefully study the checkout process and where shoppers tend to bounce, they know that how they design their checkout page is critical. We’re all online shoppers in our personal lives and we know how frustrating it can be when total prices are not transparent (i.e. shipping, processing, taxes is not included until the very last possible screen before clicking that buy button). Online retailers are struggling with where in the checkout process to surface the total price to be charged to reduce cart abandonment, while not showing the total figure too early in the process that it keeps shoppers from getting to checkout altogether. Recent research shows that providing total pricing prior to the checkout process dramatically reduces cart abandonment – as it serves as a filter to those shopping within a specific price band. Much of the cart abandonment discussion leads us to…

      The free shipping / free returns question: it’s no secret that because of Amazon and programs like Prime, consumers expect free shipping, much to the chagrin of the smaller retailer. The reality is that if you’re not a mega-retailer, shipping is an expensive part of doing business that doesn’t allow most retailers to keep their prices low and offer free shipping. This has many retailers venturing out on the “free returns” path, especially in apparel. A number of retailers we spoke with are testing a flat rate shipping fee with free returns to see if they can crack the price threshold where shoppers are willing to pay for shipping with an added service. But, free shipping remains king.

     Social ads and retargeting: they are working, but do they turn off consumers? That’s the big question. Every retailer we spoke with during a roundtable on the topic said that social ads and retargeting (where that pair of boots you’re been eyeing on a site magically follows you around the Internet) work and are meeting campaign goals. The larger question many retailers are asking is if this type of tactic is turning off a large number of shoppers, even if these campaigns are meeting their early goals. Retailers also mentioned that Facebook ads are working very well for them, especially when it comes to new customer acquisition, serving as a complimentary a channel to SEO when it comes to engaging new customers.

While there are always new things to experiment with in retail, standard challenges are top of mind as retailers scramble to get ready for holiday. It will undoubtedly be another record-breaking online shopping season, but as retailers get more and more advanced with each Black Friday, expect some exciting things. This excitement needs to be backed by sound solutions and optimized operations. Then again, consumers are expecting more than ever, so I don’t doubt that retailers are already thinking about the possibilities of holiday 2015… and beyond.

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David Dorf, Sr Director Technology Strategy for Oracle Retail, shares news and ideas about the retail industry with a focus on innovation and emerging technologies.

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