August 1, 2010, 12:00 AM

Channel shift

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That means mobile marketers have to tread lightly, particularly when sending promotions via text message. “Don’t overdo it,” he said. “Twice a month is good.” It’s not easy to get consumers to provide their mobile phone numbers, he said, and excessive marketing will prompt consumers to cut retailers off.

Retailers just getting started in mobile—as most are—should figure out what devices their customers use and how many can be reached via the mobile channel, advised Julie Ask, an m-commerce analyst at Forrester Research Inc. Don’t target the iPhone just because it’s hot, she said. As to whether to start with a mobile site accessible from all phones or apps tailored to specific devices, Ask explained that apps are a good fit for frequent shoppers carrying out relatively complex tasks.

In your Facebook

The bright future of mobile commerce is illustrated by a recent study showing the typical child now gets her first cell phone at 8, pointed out Rodney Joffe, senior vice president and senior technologist at mobile technology company Neustar Inc. Likewise, several speakers pointed at Facebook’s massive user base—some 500 million consumers worldwide—as a big reason retailers must market through social media.

Several retailers already are, and are closing sales. Greeting cards maker Hallmark Cards, for instance, added a shopping tab on its Facebook page after realizing that many more of its customers were spending time on Facebook than on Hallmark.com, observed IRCE speaker David Saville, innovations product manager at Hallmark.

Shoppers can go to Hallmark’s Facebook page to customize and purchase a greeting card, leaving it to Hallmark to stamp and mail it. “The basic idea is to give consumers the ability to personalize and buy a real paper card without leaving Facebook, and then be done with it,” Saville said.

Moxsie.com, an e-retailer that launched in January 2009 with limited marketing funds, relies on frequent use of Twitter to engage its target audience of women 18 to 25, said marketing director Julia Kung. Moxsie employees are just as likely to tweet about a popular TV series like Glee as about fashion, Kung said, and the conversational strategy has gained the retailer more than 50,000 Twitter followers.

Paying attention to social media allows retailers to engage consumers as they’re researching and preparing to buy, noted Kung’s co-presenter, Bob Pearson, a former social marketing executive at Dell Inc. and now chief technology and media officer at communications services company WeisComm Group.

With a nod to popular film-review shows on TV, two experts commented on retailers’ social marketing initiatives. Audience members voted via text message. For instance, David Griner, social media strategist at Luckie & Co., loved a treasure hunt organized by tony shoe manufacturer Jimmy Choo, which posted clues on Facebook and Twitter about where in London to find a hidden $600 pair of sneakers. “A great idea,” Griner said. Having fun with the brand was good, but Jimmy Choo should have offered it in other cities, grumbled Dan Shust, director of emerging media at Resource Interactive. The audience gave thumbs-up by 3.5 to 1.

Digging deeper

As hot as mobile and social were, many IRCE sessions dug into e-commerce essentials, with retailers explaining their latest strategies on everything from site design to negotiating contracts with technology vendors.

Videotaping 30 consumers as they used a newly redesigned web site for Charming Shoppes led the multichannel apparel retailer to make several important changes in its new design, reported Ken Mowry, vice president. For instance, the original design only showed items in a shopping cart for five seconds before the cart disappeared; testers kept adding items to the cart just to be reminded what they added earlier.

“We learned that we wanted to leave it up and let consumers choose to close it,” Mowry said. With the new design in place, the retailer’s online sales grew 36% in the first quarter of this year, compared with 6% in the same period last year.

Office supplies chain Staples Inc. made a simple change to its paid search campaign—sending a daily inventory feed to its search marketing firm, iProspect, to prevent bidding on keywords related to out-of-stock items. That will save Staples $400,000 this year, said Heather Deschenes, director of customer acquisitions at Staples.

Finding low-cost suppliers is crucial on the web where consumers can easily compare prices. Kevin Hickey, vice president of marketing at OnlineStores.com, explained how the e-retailer works with 20 overseas suppliers for its niche sites, such as United-States-Flag.com and EnglishTeaStore.com. He suggested several ways to find suppliers—such as online directory Alibaba.com—and key questions to ask, including how long before goods arrive.

And he suggested using multiple suppliers. “Why pick one?” Hickey said. “Try two or three suppliers and over time give more business to the one that works best for your business.”

Who’s chasing you?

Online retailers have overtaken many established brands by doing a better job of meeting consumers’ needs, and now is not the time for e-retailers to become complacent, warned IRCE speaker David Blakelock, vice president of technology at Boston Apparel Group, which sells online and through catalogs.

“As Internet retailers we’ve been the ones attacking the big brands,” he said. “But what do you do about the guys in garages just starting up and coming up with the next big idea?”

The answer, he said, is to know your customer. He encouraged retailers to collect every piece of data they can from customers—including from their product reviews and complaints—then use that data to segment customers and send them relevant marketing messages.

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