December 1, 2010, 12:00 AM

Sponsored Supplement: How to make technology investments pay off

Retailers realize ROI when they put money into technology that helps customers accomplish their goals, regardless of shopping channel.

With e-commerce sales growing at double-digit rates for a full year now, according to the U.S. Commerce Department, and far faster than sales at physical stores, many retailers are planning to spend more on new web technology that will drive more traffic and boost conversions.

A recent Internet Retailer survey revealed that 72% of retailers plan to spend more on e-commerce technology in the next year. In addition, better than a quarter of retailers surveyed plan to boost their tech budgets by more than 20%.

But adding technology wisely means looking past the latest gadget and widget. Retailers today must focus on new technology that makes it easier for online consumers to achieve their objectives. Whether their objective is to make a purchase, research a product, compare prices or contact customer service, consumers want to get it done quickly and successfully.

“Consumers come to a web site for a specific purpose, and the quality of their experience on the site as it relates to that purpose directly impacts the retailer’s brand, customer loyalty and sales,” says Larry Freed, president and CEO of ForeSee Results, a customer satisfaction measurement and management company specializing in serving online retailers.

E-commerce directors must keep in mind that many consumers are visiting their sites to gather information, and intend to buy in a bricks-and-mortar store.

“When it comes to upgrading their web sites, retailers can’t overlook the needs of consumers that come to their site to research a product before purchasing it through an offline channel,” says Freed. “The web experience has to serve the needs of the consumer, whatever those needs may be.”

Consistent shopping experience

Serving consumers’ needs is more complex because they are shopping in many ways, not only physical stores or web sites, but through social networks and on mobile phones, with shopping via the TV remote control on the horizon. Consumers don’t think about channels; they just want a retailer to meet their needs in every instance.

That argues for retailers investing in upgrading the product content management features of their e-commerce platforms. As multichannel retailers invest more in their e-commerce sites and mobile commerce sites, they need to create data pathways that flow the same product information and marketing messages to each channel so there is a consistent user experience across each channel.

By creating a central repository that houses all product descriptions and related data, such as video, images, manufacturers’ specifications and customer reviews, retailers can deliver a consistent view of the product across all customer touch points.

“Great web site features can’t fix bad product data,” says John Keating, regional director, North America, for hybris, a multichannel e-commerce software vendor. “Without consistent product data, retailers cannot deliver a consistent user experience across all customer touch points.”

When inconsistencies in product data exist between channels, the user experience differs between channels. That is a glitch multichannel retailers want to avoid. “Retailers can’t predict which channels consumers will use to interact with them or when,” says Keating. “Presenting consistent product data and brand messaging ensures consumers will be engaged regardless of the channel they use.”

Standardizing product information improves site search and search engine results; it also creates consistency of product information on affiliate and comparison shopping sites. Plus, a central repository means retailers don’t have to spend the time and money creating separate databases to feed individual sales channels.

“Consolidating product data from all customer touch points eliminates data silos that can limit the data a customer sees in one channel versus another,” says Keating. “The more consistent the user experience the more engaging it can be, which impacts conversions.”

The burgeoning mobile commerce channel represents both a tremendous opportunity for retailers to reach consumers and a challenge to deliver the type of online shopping experience consumers have come to expect from e-commerce sites.

The opportunity in m-commerce for retailers is that they can connect with consumers anytime, anywhere. Consumers not only want to use their smartphones to shop and research products online, but also to compare prices when they’re in stores or out window shopping.

“The explosion in smartphone sales is prompting retailers of all sizes to find ways to invest in m-commerce technology, because their business can benefit significantly by having a mobile presence,” says Alex Schmelkin, president and co-founder of e-commerce design and engineering firm Alexander Interactive (Ai). “Mobile technology is a great way for retailers to target consumers and draw them to their online store or into the store.”

The challenge facing retailers in the mobile channel is twofold. For starters, retailers are constrained by the smaller screen on smartphones, which limits the amount of information they can present on a page. Second, the bandwidth for cellular networks is less than that of landline Internet connections, which means slower page downloads.

“A lot of aspirations in the mobile channel can’t be supported by the speed of the mobile network or the limited screen real estate on the device,” says Schmelkin. “Mobile technology is catching up to the aspirations of retailers, but in the meantime retailers must build mobile sites to support the variety of smartphone browsers in the market.”

Given the current limitations of mobile, retailers need to create sleeker m-commerce sites that deliver less content per page than their e-commerce sites do. The content that is delivered, however, must be consistent with the quality of information on retailers’ web sites so that the user experience is consistent.

“With m-commerce technology in different stages of development it is important that retailers create an m-commerce user experience that is as consistent as possible with their e-commerce site, but at the same time meets the needs of m-commerce shoppers,” says Schmelkin.

Quick response

As smartphone owners rely more and more on their handsets to conduct product research online while shopping in a retail store, retailers are seeing an opportunity to attach quick response, or QR, codes to their merchandise to facilitate online access to product information.

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