July 9, 2012, 11:36 AM

Experts foresee accelerating change in European e-commerce

European retailers can use many channels to connect with consumers.

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Online businesses in Europe are facing a period of enormous change, industry experts agreed in a panel discussion at the eTail Europe Conference in London late last month.

In the session entitled “Understanding how the 2012-2013 consumer will be interacting across channels to enhance customer centricity and increase conversion,” panelists discussed how e-commerce will develop over the next 12 months. They all agreed that consumers will demand a personalized and easy shopping experience.

"The next few years are likely to see change speed up rather than slow down," said Don Nesbit, head of customer and market insight at department store chain Argos. "M-commerce in particular offers many exciting opportunities for retailers, as do tablets.”

Smartphones, he said, are what tie all the other marketing channels together, because they enable the consumer to be connected at all times.

The U.K. is the biggest m-commerce market in Europe, worth an estimated 5.4 billion euro (US$6.7 billion), Nesbit said.

Nesbit stressed the need for retailers to tie all sales channels together to meet the needs of the customer.

"Retailers need to look at the customer's journey as a whole, in context and examine every touch point they have with the consumer, because if any one stage of the sales process is not meeting or exceeding the shopper's expectations, then the whole experience will collapse," Nesbit said.

In line with this strategy, panelist Sean McKee, head of e-commerce at shoes retailer Schuh, has added a live help feature to its online store that enables customers to interact with a live agent at the contact center either via video or chat.

"Customers seem very comfortable with the video format, especially students,” McKee said of the feature. He said those who use live help convert more often that those who do not, although he did not provide specific data. Schuh derives about 18% of its sales through the Internet.

“What we at Schuh are interested in doing is using all channels available to engage with the customer online, make the sales process as simple as possible and offer the most amount of choice," McKee said.

Chris Vezey, sales director at e-commerce platform provider Sitecore, added that personalizing the customer experience is key to driving sales. 

Retailers must seek to optimize the experience of each shopper,  he said, not just the show consumers a product.

"We live very complex digital lives and retailers haven't yet taken full advantage of this, because they are not fully looking at how a shopper shops,” Vezey said. “They (consumers) want to shop online in much the same way as they do in a physical store. They want a conversation, where the information is exchanged at the stage where they need it, so they are nurtured to the point where they want to buy."

Argos tries to develop more personal relationships with its customers via social media. The retailer has around 25,000 followers on Twitter and Facebook and more than 5.6 million video views of its products on YouTube.

"Retailers need to wake up, as an industry,” Nesbit said. “Although consumers have always had multiple channel inputs, the experience is now digitally turbocharged and we have to stay ahead of the changes."

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