10 ways brands can improve their e-commerce customer journey
After this past transformational year, brands ramping up their e-commerce efforts are assessing best practices—and those that already have established beachheads are asking how to compete most effectively in the new expanded marketplace.
According to Salesforce research, 79 percent of consumers say the experience a company provides is as important as its products and services. Ad Age spoke with experts across the marketing industry—representing brands, agencies, tech firms, researchers and media platforms. They offer 10 strategies to create the best e-commerce experience for customers.
For starters: Use what you know—or what you can find out
“One of the top things that tends to turn off consumers is when brands don’t use the information they have,” DAC’s VP-Digital Media Jenna Watson says. “It’s not difficult to do, but it’s shocking how little brands care about that.” For Watson that means bringing data from offline interactions to the online experience, for a full view of customers—allowing a brand to avoid, for example, sending a retargeted ad to a consumer who just actually bought that product.
Percent of Americans say they are familiar with direct-to-consumer brands, and of those, 69% have made at least one DTC purchase in the past year. Consumers say they perceive DTC brands as cool and trendy, often with higher quality at a lower price point.
(Diffusion: 2021 Direct-to-Consumer Purchase Intent Index)
As Salesforce VP-Industry Strategy and Insights Rob Garf points out, “Consumers leave a footprint about their shopping behaviors and preferences. Brands and retailers have the opportunity to harness that data in a secure way.”
Alcoholic beverage giant Diageo mines the customer data it has from its transactions and digital partners, but also conducts regular proprietary consumer research including a weekly U.S. shopper panel. “Listen to your consumers and shoppers,” says Steve Wallet, VP-category development, shopper marketing and e-commerce. “They’ll tell you what they’re looking for.”
Rule No. 1: No friction
It’s the first thing every expert lists. “Anything that removes friction for the customer is the right answer,” says Watson. “If I buy something, and, say, it requires installation and I need to call to get help—if I have to explain who I am, what I bought, answer if I have I interacted with the brand before….that’s a problem. The way to remove that kind of friction is by using the data.”
Percent of consumers who said they learned about DTC websites from social media; 35% said they saw an ad on TV or in print.
(Reach3 Insights Direct to Consumers research, January 2021)
Frictionless means contactless transactions, free shipping, fast delivery and easy returns. Facebook VP-Global Marketing Solutions Simon Whitcombe says reducing friction is also about options like one-click transactions that “reduce the amount of steps required to get from discovery to conversion.”
Stick the landing
Once that moment of discovery happens, and the customer viewing a video, an ad or email clicks to find out more or to make a purchase—how is the landing? How quickly does the mobile page deliver? Does the website represent what the customer clicked on?
Loren Padelford of Shopify says, “We’re in the era of online retail 3.0. In 2.0, marketers created very complex but beautiful stores and processes. Often those sites had a reverse effect—they were so complex and cumbersome they were frustrating to the shopper. A lot erred on the side of information overload. You came here because you wanted to make a purchase—and you find lots of information but no checkout ability. You saw products but no buy button, no way to add something to your cart.
“A website needs less complexity, and more obviousness,” Padelford says. “The site’s job is to transact—not to inform.”
Percent of consumers around the world say they get shopping ideas from social media.
(GFK/Facebook study, July-August 2020)
And of course, brands need to avoid “the classic customer experience fail,” Facebook’s Whitcombe says: The customer clicks on a social media ad or link for a specific pair of shoes, for instance—and the landing page doesn’t have that pair in stock, or in the right size or color.
Make it personalized and memorable
E-commerce offers a variety of ways to create a personalized, distinctive experience for a customer. Brands that resonate help shoppers feel like they’re home, says Scott Braun, CMO of online alcoholic beverage marketplace Drizly. At Drizly, he says, the goal is to make a visitor feel “that the brand knows you—like the local liquor store you might walk into every week. It’s a combination of technology and tone of voice. We try to marry the technology of personalization with the ethos of a real person talking with you.”
Sometimes that is actually a real person; Kantar’s Reid Greenberg says more online retailers are offering shopping assistants, or concierges, to work in real time with customers—especially older customers. “Customers respond to that brilliant, personal customer service,” he says.
Percent of people abandon their shopping cart because checkout took too long.
(41 Cart Abandonment Rate Statistics, Baymard Institute, September 2019)
Making it special also can mean products, services or programs available only to certain shoppers at certain touchpoints. Facebook’s VP-Business Opportunities Shiva Rajaraman cites more brands producing limited edition products available online, sometimes collaborations with other brands. “What you buy is a form of self-expression,” he says, and for a brand’s customer, “These exclusive products are an expression of my identity, and show that I’m a fan.”
Omnichannel. Really, this time
As Watson says, “It sounds so old-fashioned, but omnichannel matters. Brands are going to have to make it easy and fast to shop any way customers want. Period.”
But Garf says in Salesforce research, “What we hear from shoppers is how disjointed and fragmented it is across channels. We need to keep working to streamline that experience.”
Padelford believes the industry is “actually finally getting to true omnichannel. People are online, on mobile, on social, in a physical store—all at the same time. It’s actually a true thing now. So now, the goal is that consumers can buy where they are. That’s what omnichannel was supposed to mean, after all. You are in the channel that your customers are in, rather than trying to move your customer.”
Create a shopping experience
Says Braun, “As e-commerce began to accelerate so rapidly, all brands began to realize it’s not just a place to test and dabble any more. It’s a place to grow their business—and take share if they do it right. They are focusing more on what they look like on the digital shelf—whether they have the right SKUs and products, and developing actual brand pages.”
Experts say e-commerce needs to create more of an experience, especially to compete with brick-and-mortar stores. Part of that experience is the ability to browse. “What if you don’t know what you want? In a real store, you might wander through the aisles. In e-commerce, there’s often very little inspiration right now,” Profitero President Sarah Hofstetter says. “E-commerce hasn’t been built for that; it’s one of those things that’s a trade-off. It can be improved.”
Make sure advertising adds something
“It’s easy to put an ad on any page, and in an online marketplace like ours, any ad for an alcoholic beverage is semi-relevant. But if I’m on the bourbon page and seeing an ad for light beer, that’s not additive,” Drizly’s Braun says. “Within the e-commerce environment we’re asking: How can we get better at this? How can we make the advertising additive to the customer’s experience, with relevance to the placement and the customer?” At Drizly, that means providing expert recommendations, expanded information and sampling opportunities—just like a customer might encounter in a liquor store.
Percent of consumers surveyed in January who said they are still concerned about visiting an auto dealership or lender to purchase a vehicle. 85% said they would be more likely to purchase a vehicle in the next few months if they could complete the purchase online. And even with vaccines expanding, 27% said they would prefer completing as much as possible of a vehicle purchase remotely.
(Lightico: The Consumer Auto Lending Report January 2021)
Hofstetter says there are untapped opportunities on the websites of brick-and-mortar retailers as well. “There’s a lot of upside for brands. Advertising when done well can really enhance the shopper’s experience,” she says—for instance, when a brand offers discounts or product information, or sponsors the cost of delivery or shipping in return for multi-item purchases.
Provide the perfect checkout
It has to work seamlessly. Reduce potential friction by connecting with the shopper’s available data. “Don’t ask me to fill out my full address and credit card information again, when all that is stored in PayPal or Apple Pay or some other payment method,” says Whitcombe.
Shopify’s Padelford recommends asking the question: “How do you make it easier for people to make a choice once they’re in your environment? Create subscription opportunities and different payment options—including buy now, pay later. These are things that any retailer can start to look at right now.”
The checkout also offers another chance to connect with customers and reinforce what the brand stands for—by allowing purchasers to choose lower-carbon delivery options or to make donations to the brand’s favorite causes.
Sweat the details—and own it to the end
Details matter, from end to end. For example, Watson thinks shoppers “enjoy the extra bit of care and specialness in the way the product is packaged and sent. For a smaller brand, that might be a personalized note, beautiful packaging, ribbons—so that just thinking about taking it out of the box and unwrapping it gets people’s attention.”
And then there’s fulfillment. More retailers are offering an alphabet soup of options: regular home delivery, C&C (click and collect), BOPIS (buy online, pick up in store) or DUG (drive up and go). But like a lot of brands and even retailers, Drizly and the liquor brands it sells don’t manage the last mile of the customer’s experience. Still, Braun says, “It’s not something that we own, but it’s our responsibility.” Drizly tries to help its retailers by arming them with an assessment of store-level demand—for Fridays or holidays, so stores can staff up. “Even though it’s not us delivering, we can enable them to be better,” he says.
Make it seamless in-house, too
It feels like a well-worn marketing mantra, but to make the customer’s experience work, a brand needs seamless, silo-free, integrated operations in-house: Digital and traditional media, above the line and below the line departments—everything should work together and share data. “Each brand should look and see how many different owners and groups they have running marketing channels,” Watson says. “Is there a team running the website and e-commerce, and another for digital marketing? Are social and search in different departments? Why? Until we bring all these people together, the best experience is not going to happen. You need the data infrastructure within your organization to tie the consumer’s information together no matter where they shop, and then use that knowledge to make the best business decisions.”