January 3, 2013, 3:02 PM

Experience required

Enhancing the experience consumers have when they shop online is execs' top priority in 2013.

Lead Photo

There is so much coming at e-commerce executives these days, with a new "hot topic" emerging seemingly every day. Pinterest. Mobile apps. International sales. For all the chatter surrounding these and perennial issues like fraud, free shipping and competitive positioning, which is the one that really matters to top e-commerce executives right now?

Mobile commerce capabilities and international expansion appear atop the radar of some e-commerce executives, but the greatest e-commerce priority for C-level executives going into 2013 is a familiar one: improving the customer shopping experience in ways that will drive conversions.

Each of the C-level executives contacted for this story cited improving the customer experience among their top three priorities for the coming year. However, each has a slightly different game plan for how to attack it. All will address the issue with technology, and some say a mix of technology and human insights is the answer. But each says a differentiated customer experience is what's going to set their e-commerce site apart from the competition.

And who is that competition? Each conceded that Amazon.com Inc. is a powerful force in e-commerce and one that raises the performance bar for all e-retailers. But while not everyone sees Amazon as a direct threat to the well-being of their e-commerce enterprise, executives say they are doubling down on customer experience to keep consumers from looking elsewhere for the products they want.

Technology and training

Scott Jordan, CEO of travel apparel retailer ScotteVest, says he will focus on improving the experience consumers have on ScotteVest.com by mixing new technology tools and the insights coming to him from his customer service staff. The e-retailer already makes ample use of rich media, like video, high-resolution photos and zoom, and it highlights customer and media reviews of its products all over the site. Encouragements to e-mail, call, engage in live chat or on social media appear as well.

But when a consumer engages in live chat or calls, customer service representatives still rely on their three-ring binders full of product and sizing information to answer commonly asked questions. If an existing customer returns to the site, ScotteVest can see his order history and purchase behavior, but there's no system in place to use or otherwise take advantage of that information. "Everyone talks about delivering personal shopping experiences, but no one is doing it," Jordan says. "We are bringing on more people in customer service and adding technology to do that."

One technique Jordan intends to employ is to use video more often to answer customers' questions, something he's been tinkering with for several years to assist customers with the sizing process. Representatives are already set up to use webcams and Skype to visually walk consumers through the process, but most only offer it sparingly. He plans to retrain his team of customer service reps about how to engage with video and use it as a go-to response mechanism with customers. For example, if a consumer can't figure out how to feed the headphone cable for his iPod through his jacket liner, a representative can show him. Jordan thinks this will make consumers remember ScotteVest, and make them more likely to recommend the e-retailer to others.

In December, Jordan began working with his customer service team to translate information stored in representatives' binders into on-site tools useful to shoppers. He also intends this year to tie together data systems, such order management and live chat, so that agents talking to customers have information about their previous purchases. "We are going to marry all the information we have together," he says.

Integrating systems for better service

Online and TV mass merchant ShopNBC.com similarly intends to merge systems to provide the kind of shopping experiences customers want, says Carol Steinberg, chief operating officer. The goal is to make consumers shop the retailer more frequently. "It is all about using the data from all of our tracking to really understand what our customers prefer, how they behave and what they look at so we can lead them down the path to engage with us very actively and at a fast frequency over the year," she says.

Part of what ShopNBC customers want, Steinberg says, is to interact with the retailer on multiple channels, such as TV, web and mobile. To that end, the retailer is working internally and with its vendors to ensure that what a consumer sees on one screen is consistent with what she sees on another. "We want to attack, holistically as a company, how we create systems that don't require us to do duplicate work. We want to create once and publish many times," she says.

Better management of its data to avoid duplicating efforts is also a top priority for PriveCo Inc. CEO Tom Nardone operates 11 specialty e-retail sites on the Yahoo Stores platform, and many of the products are sold across multiple sites in the PriveCo family. For example, the same vibrator model is available on Vibrators.com, Bachelorette.com and RomanticGifts.com. All are fulfilled from the same stockpile, and when it sells out, the product page on each site has to be updated individually to show it is out of stock.

Nardone says in 2013 he wants to make his sites operationally "flawless," and that means making sure consumers never place an order and then get a notice that it is on back order. He intends to implement some homegrown code that will tie his inventory management system to all the consumer-facing web sites to reflect what's in or out of stock in real time. Consumers won't be able to order products that aren't immediately available for delivery, which should reduce queries about two of the retailer's most common customer service issues, delivery and back orders. "If someone clicks the Order button, it has to go," Nardone says. "There should be no excuses."

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