Category pages are like aisles in the store – are to guide us through the shopping process. They help us decide on the product to buy. While, merchandising is the way you, as a retailer, provide key information to potential buyers to take time to consider a displayed product and get it eventually. But online shopping differs from the on-site experience: your shoppers can enter at any point on any page and there is no designated entrance to guide them through.
First time online shopping (on a particular site – i.e new visitors) can also be challenging. Remember your confusion when you go to the same brand grocery store in a new city…even in your own city, but a different store: you will spend more time trying to locate the aisles first, let alone the products you have come for!
So what are the ways to display your products effectively? There are 4 common practices that are easily observable, used mostly as a mix of all or some:
1) Navigation, as the 1st approach is focused on user experience. Hence the main goal for you as a site manager, is to provide clues to your shoppers to locate the products, group them into sets and narrow down by various product variables. The narrowing down part is the most crucial functionality of category pages – not the amount of information on the page. My favorite sites that do a great job in helping shoppers decide are: bluenile.com with its diamond search tool, bestbuy.com with its lifestyle categories for products (that give shoppers frames of reference) and hotels.com with its star/ratings/reviews/price/location options. The trick is to make the process as efficient and fast to help us decide which one of those items to spend our hard or smart earned money on!
2) Promotional method is the 2nd driver to decide how and what products to display. You also want to make more money and display your hottest or most profitable items, don’t you? Showcasing your best selling products or seasonal “must-haves” is still customer-friendly approach. Not only it provides shoppers with shortcuts, but also shifts the inventory based on demand. The trick of this approach is not to allow promotion get ahead of navigation and allow your shoppers control their search without much “virtual car sales people ( i.e your banners or always the same prominent products”) on the way!
3) Inventory management can play out its role as the 3rd driver which products to display and how often to change them. You can sell only what you have in stock, thus there must be some automation to your online store to alert you about the “backorder situation” and possibly trade the valuable web space with an alternative product. At the minimum, your product page with an “out-of-stock item’ should suggest comparable products for the shopper to consider. Do not let them give up on you and move to another store!
4) Taking a personal touch is my favorite approach, which marks personalization technology as the 4th driver in online merchandising. How much easier and more enjoyable it is to shop on the site that learns about your preferences, taste and tailors its category/product pages accordingly? Amazon.com and Bidz.com do it with flair. So if you have a chance to add extra value to your customers’ experience with a personal shopper through product recommendations based on user search and buying behavior, sprinkled with cross-selling functionality – by all means utilize it to the fullest. Personalized product recommendations consistently increase revenue, conversion rates, average order value and impact customer loyalty significantly.
Overall, in online retail, the working formula of strong merchandising includes a mix of insights from web analytics, product seasonality, price adjustments, promotional practices for a given category/industry, and user experience considerations. And this is not an exhausted list either. Online merchandising is truly a very valuable expertise not taught in schools, or books, but experienced through actual site management and application of holistic thinking.
I only covered four methods in this post, which should only prompt you to add your own value from other information pools for your site to truly evolve your merchandising strategy into a strong working system.