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Blogging Live: Merchandising Workshop--The Golden Rule of Online Merchandising

Posted on July 16, 2008 by Vanessa

The presenter for this session was Bryan Eisenberg, Co-Founder Future Now Inc.

Bryan is a great speaker, he got his plugs out of the way and let us all know that his company has gone public and his new book is coming out any day now.  He was also nice enough to share that the audience there was a talented hard working experienced group, and that he thought the challenges we are facing here are at a different level than those he has experienced at the many other conferences he speaks at.  He then added that he believes there is a disconnect between what we are saying about our websites and how great they are and what our websites actually look like. He goes on to say (this quote and the others are paraphrased) "At work we wear superhero capes, and disconnect ourselves between who we are when we go home and shop."  He believes that there has been more change to commerce and customer behavior in the last 7 years than the past 500.  He explains this theory in discussing what people do when they watch T.V. and that television advertisers have had to essentially surprise people to get their attention.  This is because as he states "People who are watching T.V. are multi-tasking, in fact a Yahoo study shows that 40% of the people that are watching T.V. are asleep".  His point about this was all leading up to the revelation that those who are shopping online, can't really be actively doing something else, like sleeping, while they are shopping, he reiterates the point by reminding us that these customers are actively involved in our websites.  He challenges the crowd to stop being so busy with the daily tasks that seem urgent and instead re-focus and on the important.

Future Now Studies

His company, Future Now Inc., consults websites and benchmarks the industry.  One of their studies showed that 76.7% of internet retailers did not pass their test.  He adds that this is "Frightening".  He lets us know that we are getting better at optimization according to his studies, but those of us who have been only using Google products will need to move on to something more sophisticated if we want to keep up, his explanation is that Google products are cool because they get smaller retailers started with testing and optimization but there is a reason they are free and it is because the paid versions offer more.  (As an aside, and this is me, I have talked to other retailers of our size who have tried analytics solutions that they paid for and went back to Google analytics, so this may be true for some of these solutions, but I don't think that it is true of all).  Now back to the customer experience study that his company released, the 2007 Future Now Customer Experience Study found that the average score was 43 out of 100, and of the retailers that were looked at, only four would have passed.  Some of the things that they looked at were: Product presentation, delivery options, checkout processes, and customer service information.  Some of the things that they deliberately left out because they didn't believe they were factors related to the actual customer experience were price and the ease of finding products.  *Update, Bryan was nice enough to clarify that he didn't say that these points were not part of the customer experience, and let me know that one of the reasons these pieces were left out of the study was the ease of measuring.*(I agree in some aspects, but the ease of finding products is questionable as far as I am concerned, as I think it is a big part of the experience.  Take for example if I went shopping in a store today and I had a hard time finding what I was looking for, I then get frustrated and have to find help, in the internet retail world that would mean calling a customer service rep or sending an email or reaching them by LiveChat).  Bryan then started sharing some of the results of the study: 62% of online retailers only had a brief blurb in the product description, only 11% had exceptional ad copy (he did clarify that this was the only opinion question included in the study), 67% of customers who come to an online retail site to buy leave because there was not enough product information.  He boldly states what we should all already know, but I guess it needed to be said "If you don't have enough copy and the right images people will not buy from you".

Think Like a Customer

He moves on in an effort to explain further, "customers are like toddlers with money, their favorite question is why.  Why is this product better?  Why should I buy from you?... They have all of the same questions but less attention span than a child".  Next he starts showing examples of a search he did for digital camera on both and, the screen shots showed a list of cameras and a list of attribute refinements, but the attribute refinements listed are based on pixels, and brand, etc.  He then asks the crowd if we have ever bought a camera and gotten frustrated about the speed in which it takes pictures and been disappointed when the camera was too slow.  Yes was the prominent answer in the room and those that didn't answer seemed to be able to sympathize with the example.  Bryan then asks us all why we aren't merchandising it if we know the problem exists?  Like a lot of other things that Amazon does well it was the one site that he found, that sold cameras that had reviews about the speed of the camera.  While other sites may have had reviews, they weren't used in the attribute refinements or the descriptions, but because Amazon is Amazon there is a Firefox plug-in called Pluribo that will "magically summarize the user reviews on most electronics pages".  (Cool tidbit that I didn't know about, does that mean I am kicked out of the nerd club?) 

Understand the Decision Making Processes

As a sociology major Bryan learned about personality types and how that effects purchasing decisions, he gave us a site called that summarizes Myers Briggs personalities for reference.  He thinks that marketers are intuitive by nature but that we need to think more like our customers that are probably the opposite as 72% of the populations is a sensing type and not intuitive.  He adds that spontaneous personality types like top sellers and new releases, those that are considered humanistic like reviews, but methodical people will search by the category, and those that are competitive will search by a specific term.  He adds that if we don't have the ability to showcase our products in this way our customers will bounce.  He uses as an example as he had a success story about how the changes Future Now suggested for their movies category page dramatically increased sales.  He gives us a lesson on how we can add reviews to our product description when it seems appropriate.  What he does is look at all of the reviews for the product he is working on, he then begins to plot them on a graph.  The graph is categorized by positive v. negative and logical v. emotional.  He adds to this by giving us some more examples so that we can put what he is saying in to perspective "25% don't have options to enlarge the image, 65% don't have multiple images, the basics are what is missing not the innovative.  Too many websites have difficult to read fonts, and that is coming from a study where the average age of the sample was 30.  13% of those reviewed don't let the customers change the font size, 61% don't offer live stocking, 59% don't offer expedited shipping, and 41% don't provide assurances during the checkout."  By assurances he means showing the returns or shipping policies at checkout, and having copy that reads on the order of: Easy returns policy, money back guarantee, free return shipping, etc.   He continues "45% display customer service hours, 59% correctly answered email questions within 24 hours and of those the answer was completely irrelevant 50% of the time".  He gives an example of and how they received higher scores because they were able to answer the question properly and able to do so within two hours.  He then adds that only 20% of multi-channel retailers had order online with in store pick-up, which seemed to be a common theme throughout.

The Golden Rule of Merchandising

Bryan then asks us all what the Golden Rule was, in unison the crowd chimed "Do unto others as you would want done to you".  Bryan agrees and then explains that the Golden Rule of Merchandising is similar but has a twist to it; he remarks confidently "Do unto others as they want done unto themselves".  He closes by reassuring us that he knows and agrees that there is a balance between being customer centric and staying within the numbers.

Q and A

This is also paraphrased.

Q: Why would we need to move away from Google Optimizer and studies have shown that customers don't like to read so why should we add to our copy if we want them to read it?

A: Google Optimizer isn't bad because it gives retailers that aren't currently optimizing or testing at all to start out small but once you get good at it I would suggest moving on.  As far as ad copy goes it should help the customer reach their goals, there is a saying that ad copy should be like a women's skirt, short enough to be interesting but long enough to cover the essentials.  Test what works so that you can balance what customers want to read and what they need in the product information.

Q: If you had to suggest what should be optimized and by whom what would it be?

A: Web analysts are hard to find but find someone with a background in analytics and good designers and copywriters so that you can test all of these areas.

Q: What was the Firefox plug-in?

A: Pluribo and it only works on some categories right now.

Q: If you had to suggest the top 3 priorities that we can implement now what would they be?

A: There is a hierarchy of optimization that you can find on our site that lists several steps in the hierarchy.  Off the bat I would say better copy and better images but this could take a lot of resources.  On an intuitive level you have to think about what gives people assurances throughout the checkout.  If you are thinking on this level then you would consider general usability, because online shopping is like the evolution of cell phones, they may be different but the basic functionalities are done the same.  Accessibility, how easy is it to get to your site?  Functionality, make sure that everything works.  Then start looking at 404 errors, when I was shopping for that camera I clicked on a ad and I got a 404 error, not only did they pay for the click but I was an automatic bounce, and I will make sure to tell Raul about it after.  Then start moving on to in stock messaging and more.

Q: Who is doing all of these things really well?

A: We published a list and some sites may have improved by now, but I know one is BlueNile and others I would have to get back to you on.  Some websites did really well in certain categories for instance scored really high in customer service.


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