June 7, 2012, 12:10 PM

IRCE 2012 Report: How Gilt connects with shoppers

Gilt co-founder Alexis Maybank says e-retailers must think visually.

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Retailers hoping to replicate the success of Gilt Groupe Inc. should think visually, understand the differences between iPhones and iPads, and use social media to resolve customer concerns. That advice was delivered today by Alexis Maybank, the e-retailer’s co-founder and chief strategy officer, who delivered the keynote address at the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition 2012 in Chicago.

During the presentation, entitled “Innovative ways to connect with today’s consumer,” Maybank said that Gilt has some 5 million members, and that about 400,000 of them virtually walk through the e-retailer’s doors each day to take part in the 150 weekly sales offered by Gilt. The e-retailer ships about 15,000 items each day from more than 6,000 brands. “We wanted to create an addictive and fun shopping experience,” she said.

To that end, Gilt relies on what Maybank called “predictive commerce.” That’s another way of saying the retailer uses data about how its customers shop—which pages they visit, which product categories draw their dollars, how their tastes shift over time—to create sale offers and e-mail and mobile marketing messages that are personalized to individual shoppers and show each Gilt customer the handful of sales Gilt believes she might be most interested in. For instance, it’s a pretty good bet that shopping preferences are changing when a consumer views or buys maternity apparel via Gilt. “As you come through the front doors of Gilt, we want you to say, ‘Wow, Gilt really knows me,’” Maybank said.

Keeping on top of its customers’ changing preferences requires that Gilt collect and update its customer files every 24 hours based on shopper behavior, she said.

Maybank also hammered home the importance not only of engaging in mobile commerce, but crafting marketing efforts for different mobile devices. “The iPhone tends to be about immediacy and urgency,” she said. “IPads are about entertainment.” What that means for Gilt is that it will put richer visual content before consumers who access the e-retailer’s sales via their tablet computers.

The attention to mobile detail is paying off for Gilt, she said, as 20% of its weekday revenue, and 30% of its weekend take, comes via mobile devices; that revenue slice reaches as high as 45% during holiday periods such as Black Friday, the day following Thanksgiving and the traditional kickoff for holiday shopping.

But imagery is about more than mobile commerce, she said. From its Manhattan studios the e-retailer produces some 3,000 product images per day, the effort driven in large part by Gilt’s realization that consumers shop visually. “Content is best shared visually. People navigate through imagery,” she said, adding that consumers on an e-commerce site tend to shift from one big image to another.

Pretty pictures and personalization can’t do all the work, however. No matter a retailer’s level of digital sophistication, merchants still must find ways to listen to their customers, and not only to the good things they say.

That’s why Gilt monitors social media to understand how consumers are talking about the brand and its sales, and to react to customer service issues as efficiently as possible. “We look for the feedback that is out there, but more importantly, we are looking for the negative comments, what are the issues and challenges that customers might be having that day,” she said.

And Gilt doesn’t hand off the task of responding to those issues to interns or other relatively low-level employees. “We have senior executives getting involved in answering those questions directly,” she said. The point is not only to fix those issues, but make customers believe that Gilt is more than some “faceless” Internet entity, she said, a sentiment that can increase shopper loyalty.

There apparently was at least one loyal Gilt shopper during the Thursday morning session, as a Twitter post indicated that someone bought a blouse from the e-retailer during Maybank’s speech.

Gilt is No. 49 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide.

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