June 5, 2007, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT: As the web does more, making technology choices becomes more complex

(Page 5 of 6)

Brand consistency is fundamentally measured by whether the retailer offers the right products through the right sales channel, such as placing low-cost items on affiliate sites known for discounting; providing real-time 24/7 customer support; and running on an e-commerce platform that can reliably support interactive applications and not fall down during peak operating periods.

“Creating a unique brand experience that is consistent across all sales channels is critical to success,” says Henry A. (Hank) Reeves Jr., CEO of Accretive Commerce, an e-commerce services provider. “It’s not just cool technology that delivers stunning visuals and interactive features, but customer support that resolves problems quickly, having the right product mix in each channel and efficiently processing and delivering orders to customers. The brand experience is about demonstrating the effectiveness of your technology to the customer.”

To achieve that goal, retailers need to thoroughly investigate whether their e-commerce platform delivers the features needed to drive traffic, handle orders and create value in the shopping experience. “Retailers ought to be asking whether their e-commerce providers can create interactions that duplicate as many of the experiences shoppers get in the store as possible,” says Reeves. “There are a lot of opportunities to create value across the platform and deliver it to the customer.”

How a retailer’s e-commerce platform influences the shopping experience extends beyond the shopping experience provided through the web store and order fulfillment to how they manage their marketing and merchandising strategies.

“Retailers need to look at revenue, profits, inventory turn and brand reputation based on customer satisfaction levels across all sales channels and then measure their impact on sales,” says Eric Best, CEO of Mercent Corp. “If retailers can do that, they can figure out if the next dollar spent on marketing, advertising, customer service or infrastructure adds to their business.”

Other investments

Once retailers are able to measure the impact of capital spent in these areas, they can make decisions about where and how best to invest in their business, especially in marketing and merchandising.

“When it comes to the e-commerce platform there is a lot of emphasis on the storefront and order management, but less so on promotion of the brand across all touch points,” says Best. “Retailers need a platform that can help them coordinate syndication of marketing and merchandising strategies across third-party sales channels and that can track the metrics of how they relate to sales velocity.”

Mercent’s retail platform is based on the concept of distributive e-commerce, which is about adding value to the shopping experience through whatever channel the retailer touches the customers. The platform supports product syndication, merchandising optimization, retail analytics, and transactional order processing across more than 35 online marketing channels, in addition to custom data feeds. Channels include transactional marketplaces such as Amazon.com, shopping portals such as Shopping.com, affiliate networks such as LinkShare, and online search engine marketing platforms such as Google AdWords.

“Retailers are working to maximize sales through these channels, but they don’t want to do anything to sacrifice the quality of their brand,” says Best. “Without an integrated platform that provides the tools to tie together and measure the impact each part of their business has on sales, it is going to be tough for retailers to deliver a value-added shopping experience regardless of the sales channel.”

Working together

Having an integrated platform means having components that work together and at the same speed to ensure that the platform can handle all exceptions that may occur across the retailer’s business, as opposed to just on their site.

“Retailers can’t just speed up one car on the train and expect the rest of the cars to function at the same speed,” says CoreSense’s Jacobs. “Analytics, inventory management, CRM, fulfillment, etc., all play a key role in providing a richer shopping experience and need to work together. Retailers need to start thinking about how they can leverage their platform to push content across all online sales channels in a way that creates a delightful shopping experience. If retailers can succeed in achieving this goal they can engender customer loyalty and attract repeat buyers.”

Having the web store work in conjunction with comparison shopping sites is essential. Frequently consumers will access a comparison site after they have placed an item in their shopping cart to make certain they are getting the best price. If the retailer lacks a presence on these sites, it raises questions as to why they are absent, especially if the shopper has linked to the retailer’s site through a paid search ad, says ChannelAdvisor’s Wingo.

About 75% of shoppers check an item on a comparison shopping site or a transactional marketplace, and many do it after they have placed in item in the retailer’s shopping cart, Wingo continues. “It’s a mind set,” he says. “If a retailer is in front of the shopper through paid search but not in front of them on a comparison site, it raises concerns. Retailers need to keep their inventory in front of the shopper across all the sales channels.”

When performing a price check, shoppers will return and complete the sale if they confirm they are getting the best price, in most cases. “The shopping cart is a holding platform,” says Wingo. “Just because shoppers take a quick look elsewhere to compare prices does mean they will abandon the cart as long as the retailer’s catalog is consistent in the other sales channels.”

Retailers that establish a consistent presence across all these sales channels can see a 5% to 10% bump in conversion rates, adds Wingo.

Catalog consistency extends to product descriptions, customer reviews, buyer’s guides and other information that can be wrapped around the product. “The more content provided, the better the conversion rate,” says Wingo.

A new checkout experience

Besides establishing a consistent presence across all sales channels, retailers also need to consider how to take checkout to the next level. One solution is to offer payment options beyond credit cards, which can boost conversions, as there are still millions of consumers reluctant to provide credit card information on the web to make a purchase.

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