February 1, 2016, 9:51 AM

Ease and speed

Consumers shop differently on mobile devices, and e-retailers are refining search and discovery tools to help mobile shoppers find what they want.

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It wasn’t that long ago that most online shopping was done on a desktop or laptop computer at a consumer’s home or office. But the ways in which consumers shop has changed thanks to the omnipresence of mobile devices and widespread web access. During the 2015 holiday season, 18% of U.S. web sales came through mobile devices, up from 13% just a year earlier, according to comScore Inc., a digital analytics company. Further comScore data shows more than 60% of all digital shopping time is spent on smartphones and tablets.

Several years into the mobile revolution many e-retailers are taking a mobile-first approach to designing their sites to best respond to these customers and their needs. They’ve gained a firmer understanding of how consumers shop on mobile devices and are reconfiguring traditional site search and navigational approaches to better serve them.

Etsy Inc., the Internet marketplace that sells more than 36 million unique items, has spent a lot of time over the past year ensuring that when a customer comes to its mobile site and app, she can quickly find exactly what she is looking for.

“When people search instead of browse, they often start with easy-to-type terms. To account for this, we have put a lot of effort over the past year into our search filtering, category navigation and how we categorize items,” says Mike Grishaver, Etsy’s senior vice president of product. The marketplace operator, for example, brought in a language expert with a master’s degree in library sciences to help Etsy understand how consumers and sellers select the words they use to search and describe the goods they are selling. “We use keyword search because that currently works best for both our buyers and our sellers, who use keywords to tag their items,” Grishaver says.

How consumers choose which words to use in a query is a topic of debate among many website developers and retailers. With the addition of Apple Inc.’s Siri voice-based assistant on all newer iPhones and iPad, Google Inc.’s voice-activated search capability Google Now on Android smartphones and Amazon.com Inc.’s Alexa running the voice-activated Echo assistant, some consumers are beginning to run, or speak, more conversational queries. A survey of 1,800 U.S. adults taken last fall showed 63.3% of smartphone users had used voice-based search, with the largest percentage of those respondents, 41.6%, using it for the first time in the prior six months, according to MindMeld, a voice-search technology company. About half of users said they use voice search daily or at least weekly.

That may be leading some retailers to apply more conversational interpretations to text search queries.

Cal Bouchard, senior director of e-commerce for The North Face apparel brand, a division of VF Corp., says applying natural language search, such as asking a question like “Where can I buy a purple cocktail dress for under $40?” has helped lower the average number of searches customers conduct per visit over the three years The North Face has used it. That’s a good thing, she says, because it means customers are finding what they’re looking for without searching over and over again.

“We have a significantly higher conversion rate with natural language search through both mobile and desktop sites with natural language search,” she says. “We find we’re doing less work coming up with synonyms that people might be searching for.”

The North Face uses search technology from EasyAsk, which is also developing a voice-recognition search technology that allows mobile shoppers to conduct a search by speaking into their phone. Bouchard says The North Face is looking to implement the voice search technology for mobile devices in the second quarter.

“For users to have the best mobile search experience, they’re going to want to look as if they’re looking in a store,” says Craig Bassin, EasyAsk’s CEO. “If they’re asking a salesperson what they want, they’re going to say they want a red women’s ski jacket. And the salesperson may ask what they’re looking to spend and they would say, maybe, under $300,” Bassin says. “We aim to make it so you can ask your phone in the same way.”

Site search software vendor Celebros is working toward a similar conversational goal, and expects the service will be ready for e-retailers within six months. It already offers voice-based search that doesn’t respond vocally. “We’re already 50% of the way there with allowing people to talk to their phones,” says Jeffrey Tower, Celebros president and chief marketing officer. “It won’t be long before the phone will be able to interact back to you, and all of these transactions will be done without typing.”

Bassin says mobile consumers have less patience for scrolling through search results than desktop users, so it is important to get results right the first time.

“The average mobile customer scrolls through just 4.5 pages, whereas on a desktop they scroll through up to nine pages,” Bassin says, revealing mobile consumers’ impatience.

Site search vendor SLI Systems takes a different approach to search, matching the terms the consumer enters in a search box with results for the products customers actually purchase when they type in those terms. For example, a search for “black pants” will yield what most customers purchase after entering that search term. Tim Callan, SLI’s chief marketing officer, says that over many years of using search engines, customers have learned not to use subjective terms.

“No one is typing in ‘fancy’ or ‘inexpensive,’ they’re typing in the terms they know the search feature will recognize,” Callan says.

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