Shoppers show the way

Many success stories reported at IRCE started with online retailers listening to consumers—and encouraging them to reach out to other shoppers.

Don Davis

When online retailer Wayfair LLC launched a flash-sale site three years ago it did not allow customers to return items they bought. Executives at the home furnishings retailer reasoned that the new site, called Joss & Main, would only sell a product for a limited time, and by the time a shopper returned a product it's likely Wayfair would no longer sell it.

That made sense to Wayfair executives, and they knew most other online flash-sale sites weren't accepting returns for the same reason. But that didn't mean the policy made sense to the consumers shopping the site.

"Joss & Main customers did not like our no-returns policy and they were vocal about it," Wayfair CEO Niraj Shah explained last month in a second-day keynote presentation at the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition in Chicago. "Last year we started offering returns, and our customers were thrilled."

The retailer received some returns, but not many, Shah said, though he did not provide details. And the policy change removed a hurdle to a shopper making a purchase. The lesson, he said, is to listen to your customers. "If you let customers talk, and hold yourself back and listen and take diligent notes and ask lots of questions and be open-minded, they'll basically tell you how to grow your business—because they know the answer."

It was a theme repeated often at IRCE: The online shopper can be the most valuable ally to a retailer who pays attention to what she wants. Not only will consumers provide invaluable feedback, happy shoppers will take to social networks to broadcast their delight. And when those social posts take the form of videos or imagery, they can be even more effective, IRCE speakers reported.

It all starts with speaking the consumer's language— and not industry jargon—a theme emphasized by IRCE's first-day keynote speaker, John Donahoe, CEO of eBay Inc.

"We think in channel terms. We use a merchant vocabulary," he said. "Consumers don't care about channels. Consumers just want to shop."

With that in mind, eBay has conducted experiments combining online and offline assets to make shopping more convenient, Donahoe explained. For example, in the United Kingdom a consumer who buys from an eBay seller can pick up the item at 740 stores operated by general merchandise retailer Argos. In Westfield Mall in San Francisco, eBay installed touchscreen displays on the windows of three stores where consumers can order from those retailers' e-commerce sites, even if the store is closed. "We'll see interesting combinations of online and offline to leverage the best of both to offer the consumer great service and choice," Donahoe said.

Choice is the key, he emphasized. "Look at everything through the consumer's eye. Understand that the consumer likes choice, and if you can't offer that choice, evaluate ways you can partner with others to offer that choice."

Throughout the four-day conference, retailers explained how they're getting better at looking at online shopping through their customers' eyes—and how they're adapting their marketing, e-commerce sites and mobile sites and apps accordingly.

One example came from Ubisoft Entertainment S.A., a French video game developer and publisher that radically overhauled its online marketing for its Rocksmith video game when it updated the title last year. The game is designed to teach users to play the guitar. Market research showed that many consumers who have dreamed for years of learning guitar often find once they've bought an instrument and try to learn it that playing guitar is harder than they imagined, Tim Washburn, executive vice president and creative director of The Nomadic Agency, explained in an IRCE presentation. With that in mind, Ubisoft, working with The Nomadic Agency, geared its web campaign around the slogan "The fastest way to learn guitar."

"We wanted to sell the dream, but we were selling learning software," said Scott Sappenfield, director of marketing and brand management at Ubisoft, who spoke with Washburn. "Marketing had to be focused on making learning seem possible, even probable. And we really needed to quantify fast."

To do that, Ubisoft recruited seven would-be musicians to take a "60-day challenge": learn guitar by playing Rocksmith an hour a day. The brand sent film crews to the participants' homes to film them, and created mini-documentaries about each that it posted on YouTube. Collectively, the seven videos attracted some 1 million views on YouTube.

What's more, other novice guitarists starting to take the "60-day challenge," creating their own videos that they posted to YouTube, Washburn said. "The more success they shared, the more believable this campaign became," he added.

And many consumers evidently were convinced: Sales of Rocksmith 2014 during last year's holiday season exceeded sales of the original version by 10%.

Another retailer looking at web shopping through today's shoppers' eyes is Joyus, which has posted 700 shoppable videos on Joyus.com. Consumers can buy right from the video, without going to a product page. Chairman and founder Sukhinder Singh Cassidy explained in an IRCE featured address that TV channels like QVC and Home Shopping Network showed consumers will watch shopping shows as entertainment and that, with 78% of Americans watching an online video at least once a week, the combination of shopping and online video seemed to her a natural fit. But it's taken some trial and error to succeed at it, she explained.

Joyus, which launched in 2011, initially showed many videos about food products and home décor, Singh Cassidy said, but found that many consumers prefer to buy those products offline. "You need to find a product that many people are interested in watching—and buying," she said. "If the content cost is high, you have to think of high ROI." That's led Joyus to focus on products that are not readily available in bricks-and-mortar stores, or on Amazon.com, and that many shoppers will want to buy. Videos on the site today, for example, feature apparel, jewelry, personal care products and workout gear.

Joyus also learned that the hosts who explain products on each video are crucial, as consumers will come to trust hosts that they find appealing and convincing. While on television, consumers may accept an actress demonstrating a product, on the Internet shoppers expect to engage with real people, the kind they typically see in YouTube videos. "In the age of video you have to think about who is literally the brand voice," she said. "Who is going to represent your brand on camera? Find that person inside your company. It may be a personal shopper, a stylist in your best store or the product expert who knows the story and is entertaining to watch."

Joyus primarily uses seven hosts, product experts the e-retailer trained to be video presenters, as opposed to actresses the e-retailer educated about the products. They also respond to customer inquiries on Joyus.com, and those responses will go into the shopper's social network feed if she has the site's social sharing feature turned on.

While Joyus is surely not yet in Amazon's league and doesn't disclose its sales, the video-selling strategy appears to be generating significant growth: Joyus' online sales totaled $8.4 million in 2013, up 45% from $5.8 million a year earlier, according to the Internet Retailer 2014 Second 500 Guide. What's more, others retailers will be able to test the concept, as Cassidy told the IRCE audience that she plans to open up Joyus.com to other retailers' shoppable videos, though she did not say when.

Another proof of the power of video came from Marbles: The Brain Store, which sells educational toys. Among its top 10 products is a CD called Brain Beats, which includes the song "Tour of the States," designed to help kids memorize state capitals. The video promoting it features an artist using a black marker to draw the outline of the United States and individual states on a piece of paper, adding the state capitals in time with the song's lyrics. The video, boosted by a mention in a Parade magazine gift guide, has attracted nearly 3 million views since its debut in 2012, Angie Seaman, the retailer's e-commerce manager, told IRCE attendees.

The retailer, which operates 28 stores as well as MarblesTheBrainStore.com, has created 350 videos since 2009; they were watched 2.1 million times last year. Seaman said products with associated videos convert at a 25% higher rate than those without.

Like video, compelling photos grab consumers' attention, especially in the age of image-based social networks like Pinterest and Instagram. One retailer taking advantage of consumer interest in those social networks is King Arthur Flour, which hires photographers to shoot the baking products it makes and sells in the elongated image format typically used on Pinterest.

Pinterest is among the top sources of traffic to KingArthurFlour.com, Aime Schwartz, the retailer's digital marketing manager, reported at IRCE. A retailer must understand its customers to market effectively to them, she said. "It's critical to know your audience, what resonates with your customers and how to reach them—especially when you're using multiple platforms to reach them," she said.

Among the most important platforms for retailers today are mobile devices. That's particularly true for Rue La La, a web-only retailer that launches a new limited-time sale at 11 a.m. Eastern time each day. In the two months leading up to IRCE, half of the e-retailer's traffic came from smartphones and tablets, and 53% of its customers used a mobile device to shop at RueLaLa.com, Molly Baab, director of product marketing at Rue La La, and Bob Moul, CEO of Artisan, a mobile app testing vendor, reported at IRCE.

While many retailers are seeing big increases in mobile traffic, only 4% surveyed by Forrester Research Inc. test their mobile apps, while 100% test their conventional web sites and 23% their mobile sites, Moul said. But Rue La La is the exception, as it has to be, Baab said. "Mobile is core to the Rue La La business, and Rue La La is perfect for mobile," she said.

She said Rue La La works with Artisan to conduct A/B testing of its mobile app to make shopping its site appealing and fresh for mobile users. Among the areas its focused on, she said, are key points in the registration process—consumers have to register to shop on RueLaLa.com—and the purchase process, design elements related to price, and placement of opt-in options for push notifications of sales and promotions.

Rue La La also works with marketing technology vendor Signal, formerly known as BrightTag, to merge customer data across devices to create targeted marketing campaigns based on a customer's latest interactions with the e-retailer. With Signal, Rue La La can retarget immediately, sometimes while the shopper is still on the site, said Joe Stanhope, senior vice president of marketing at Signal. A retargeting campaign aimed at dormant customers Rue La La conducted with Signal technology produced a 10% increase in conversion rates, according to a case study produced by the retailer and Signal.

Tracking customer behaviors can sometimes lead e-retailers to conclude less is more. That was the case with iNetVideo.com, an online-only DVD retailer that redesigned its product pages in July 2013 to reduce clutter, reported vice president Alaa Hassan. Hassan said the new product pages prominently feature three elements: the cover of the DVD, the price and the Add to Cart button. Consumers want to see the product and the e-retailer's chief selling point is its heavily discounted price, he said. "Don't be creative," he said in his IRCE presentation. "Just make it so customers in the end check out."

And if they need help, iNetVideo.com makes it easy to find and access. The customer service button on the top of the home page is simply called "Help." Clicking on it takes a shopper to a page that says: "4 Easy Ways To Get Help/We love hearing from you." Below that text are four icons for phone, e-mail, live chat and a self-service FAQ section of the site.

It's no secret consumers want shopping to be easy and engaging, and that they like to read—and see—what other consumers think about products. IRCE made clear that many retailers are listening closely to their customers and getting better at speaking their language.




Numbers add up to a strong 2014 IRCE

IRCE, the world's largest trade show and conference devoted to e-commerce, attracted just shy of 10,000 people last month, a slight increase from the 2013 show.

The exhibit hall grew to 618 exhibiting companies, up 5.1% from 588 in 2013. They occupied 98,100 square feet of show floor space, an increase of 8.6%.

More than 600 attendees, nearly 40% more than the year before, participated in the Win the Wheels contest, visiting at least 20 Exhibit Hall booths for a chance to win a 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250. Driving away with the car was Kayme Crowell of Adrenaline 365, which sells adventurous experiential gifts, such as skydiving packages and helicopter rides.