1/03/13

Experience required

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

Allison Enright , Editor

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."

Nardone says his No. 2 priority going into 2013 is to reinforce PriveCo's key selling point, which is that it keeps all customer information confidential. Privacy has been a tenet for the company since its start in 1998, but he has to hammer away at it even more now that competition has increased from Amazon and other online retailers. "Amazon sells pretty much everything we sell," he says. "Every Internet retail business should look at themselves and at Amazon and say, 'Here's what we do that Amazon doesn't do' and focus on that."

Given the sensitive nature of the products, Nardone wants to make sure consumers understand that they can shop privately at PriveCo. He intends to star in more promotional videos on the site, talking up the company's approach to privacy, how it protects consumers' data and why consumers won't receive marketing e-mails from the company. "This is what we do and why customers shop with us and we want new customers to know it too," he says.

Expert insights

What makes Backcountry.com different from other outdoor apparel and gear retailers is the level of product expertise the e-retailer's staff brings, says Jill Layfield, Backcountry.com's CEO. And while that's always been Backcountry's primary selling point, it chose to refocus its energies in 2012 on replatforming its handful of e-retail sites from a patchwork of homegrown e-commerce systems to a single system from Oracle Corp. Layfield says the operational efficiencies achieved through the move to a single platform will enable Backcountry in 2013 to address a backlog of customer experience ideas it wants to implement.

"We have the foundation laid now with Oracle, and now it is really about layering on what is going to separate Backcountry.com from our competition," Layfield says. "Our goal is to give something extra to our customer that she is not going to find elsewhere. We are asking, 'What do our customers need and what are we uniquely positioned to provide them?'" Layfield says that's also why the e-retailer limits what it sells through its Amazon store to products such as gloves and jacket shells that consumers don't typically need or want expert advice in choosing.

Across the company, the e-retailer employs gearheads that are experts in the ski, bike and hike gear Backcountry.com sells because they use it themselves. Layfield says Backcountry intends to expand into new, adjacent product categories in 2013 but won't say which ones. It'll also launch its first international site in early 2013, although Layfield declines to say which country or countries that site will serve. "There aren't a lot of clear leaders in outdoor specialty retail [outside the United States]. We think there is a big opportunity for a brand like Backcountry to connect gear to people who are passionate about the outdoors," she says.

At specialty retailer ZooStores.com, product catalog and sales growth over the last 18 months has largely outpaced its ability to keep improving the ease of navigating and buying on the site. Behl says fixing that is a top priority in 2013.

"In the second week of January we will be making changes that really help our customers find and decide on the best products that fit their need set," he says. This includes a redesign of ZooStores' search tool and how consumers narrow their selections, he says. ZooStores' merchandising staff also will be producing more site content aimed at helping consumers choose the product that is right for them. This includes detailed buying guides and product videos.

Amid the whirlwind of demands confronting e-retailers today, e-commerce leaders in 2013 are prioritizing the delivery of good, satisfying shopping experiences. In doing so, they expect to turn browsers into buyers and, hopefully, customers for life.

allison@verticalwebmedia.com

@AEnrightIR

Jill Layfield

Jill Layfield is CEO of Backcountry.com, a web-only e-retailer of outdoor apparel and gear. Backcountry in 2013 will operate six e-commerce sites, down from seven in 2012. Backcountry.com is a unit of Liberty Interactive Corp. Liberty Interactive generated $3.7 billion in sales online in 2011 but does not disclose sales by unit. Its largest property is TV and web retailer QVC.

Layfield's top priorities for 2013

1. Innovate on customer experience

2. Improve and expand mobile commerce capabilities

3. Expand internationally

4. Add new product categories

Tom Nardone

Tom Nardone is CEO of PriveCo Inc., a web-only specialty e-retailer that bills itself as the "world's most private company" and sells the "world's most embarrassing products." It operates 11 e-commerce sites, including Bachelorette.com, Vibrators.com and EnemaSupply.com. It generated about $4 million in sales in 2012.

Nardone's top priorities for 2013

1. Make the customer experience "flawless," from ordering to fulfillment and customer service

2. Make clearer to consumers how PriveCo is different from other e-retail sites

3. Enhance product-specific content to help guide consumers to the right products

Carol Steinberg

Carol Steinberg is chief operating officer for ShopNBC, a TV and web mass merchant retailer. ShopNBC.com, which generated nearly $250 million in sales online in 2011, is owned by ValueVision Media Inc. Steinberg, since 2009, was ShopNBC's executive vice president of e-commerce, marketing and business development before her promotion to COO in October.

Steinberg's top priorities for 2013

1. Innovate to make consumers' shopping experiences "superior"

2. Merge and optimize internal systems to deliver on No. 1 efficiently

3. Advance mobile commerce capabilities

Scott Jordan

Scott Jordan is CEO of ScotteVest Inc., an e-retailer and manufacturer of specialized, branded travel apparel. The majority of the retailer's sales come though ScotteVest.com, although in 2012 the manufacturer did embark on its first attempt at wholesale distribution, selling its goods to about 100 specialty travel stores. It generated about $10 million in online sales in 2011.

Jordan's top priorities for 2013

1. Improve personalized selling techniques

2. Implement technologies that enable better, and more personal, shopping experiences

3. Advance wholesale distribution of its apparel

Nikhil Behl

Nikhil Behl is CEO of ZooStores.com, a web-only e-retailer that operates approximately 250 product-specific e-retail sites primarily in the home and fitness categories. ZooStores launched in June 2011. Over the last year it expanded its product catalog by 50% and now sells 500,000 SKUs. As of early December, ZooStores was on track to generate $100 million in sales for 2012, Behl says.

Behl's top priorities for 2013

1. Expand ZooStores' selling categories and product catalog

2. Improve the online shopping experience for customers with better search, navigation and original content

3. Launch a mobile-optimized ZooStores.com

Topics:

2013 priorities, Backcountry.com, Carol Steinberg, Customer experience, executive profile, January 2013 Magazine, Jill Layfield, Liberty Interactive, Nikhil Behl, PriveCo Inc., Scott Jordan, ScotteVest, ShopNBC, Tom Nardone, Zoostores

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