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When you see the phrase “Good retail experience,” what comes to mind? 

Maybe a brick-and-mortar store retail establishment with merchandise attractively displayed, sale racks bulging with great items at low prices, well-lit dressing rooms in clothing stores, friendly salespeople focused exclusively on their shoppers’ well-being, plus the ability to easily return an item if necessary without getting a dirty look.

You probably don’t picture an easy-to-navigate website, right? But in 2022, with so much commerce in the retail space having moved online, what’s “good” about retail has definitely expanded. 

What does a truly good retail customer experience — including the online version — mean now?

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, more people have been turning to online shopping, relying on digital experiences with their mobile devices or computers to browse what’s available and buy products. Online shopping is clearly having a moment. And with the pivot to the digital space, retailers are brainstorming about, coming up with, and offering attractive new digital shopping features that consumers are loving. 

Shopping in the digital space

While the mass move of consumers to the digital space has led to crazy new revenue flowing in for many businesses who were positioned to take advantage of the situation, it has also required companies’ swift adoption of, and transition to, new technologies. For ecommerce sites, it has often meant online sellers needing to play catch-up with the titans of the online shopping retail industry. 

Because just as when they’re shopping in brick-and-mortar retail stores, your online target customers don’t relish just an OK experience, they want and expect a great one. And it falls to retail businesses to execute a retail strategy to meet that expectation or face the consequences of lower customer satisfaction and retention.

Let’s be real: shopping online will never replicate the brick-and-mortar retail experience. The digital retail world has different parameters. Online shoppers’ needs are different. and it’s critical that businesses understand these requirements and adapt in order to ensure complete customer satisfaction. 

Know your target audience

Being able to accurately describe your target customers — their wants and needs, their buying preferences, their buttons to push for a successful online shopping experience — sounds pretty straightforward, right? But you’d be surprised by how many brands can’t or aren’t willing to invest in the research to do it.  

In a brick-and-mortar store, salespeople can engage with shoppers, learn their shopping-expedition goals and needs, and actively help them find what they’re looking for. In doing so, they can become experts on their customers’ needs in general, which can then help them proactively strive to meet those needs. 

Not so on an ecommerce website. It’s a whole different ball game if you want to build a lucrative online store. But still, the ability to know your online audience is crucial if you want to sell to them. 

The role of data analytics

That’s where data analytics comes in. The data you can gain by looking at your web traffic can help you identify people’s shopping preferences and purchasing patterns, and with that information applied, you can intelligently decide which new products to highlight and how to help individual customers get to clicking Buy and happily leaving the site “with” their purchases. Analytics can inform how you structure your ecommerce site, which product categories take center stage, and what kinds of metadata and tags you use. In addition to standard data collection through looking at your traffic, you can collect data on your shoppers by reaching out to them directly and asking for feedback, either on your site or through a survey provided as part of an email marketing campaign. 

Create a captivating journey 

Anyone in ecommerce knows the classic phrase “customer journey.” Ah, doesn’t it sound idyllic, like your shoppers are gently floating through It’s a Small World at Disneyland…. 

The concept of a customer journey originated with retailers’ desire to enhance the customer experience for shoppers entering brick-and-mortar stores. In designing an optimal retail journey for facilitating strong customer engagement, consumer psychologists figure out ways to promote the store’s prominent brands. 

What might this promotion entail? Psychologists know, for example, that certain colors and music can impact consumer behavior, and can, for instance, propel shoppers toward particular products. And because most shoppers are right-handed, and so intuitively turn to the right when they walk into a physical space, brick-and-mortar stores are often designed accordingly: merchandisers might place a colorful product display to the right of the store entrance, situated so that shoppers (those who are right-handed, anyway) literally run right into it.

Strategize for online shopping

That’s all well and good for marketing in a physical store, but in terms of business models, a digital store is a different beast. Potential new customers can’t wander in (to the right or the left) and poke around, or hear music or smell a pleasing scent, or be warmly approached by a friendly salesperson (a grinning bot doesn’t cut it). So when you’re dealing with an online shopping experience, there’s a need for decidedly different tactics. 

Another key consideration: people often go online looking for a specific item they need to buy, not to get lost browsing digital window displays and maybe throw some random stuff in their shopping carts, then eventually make their way to the item they need. And in that sense, the online retail experience is pretty different from the brick-and-mortar one. Which means it’s key for an ecommerce site’s home page and product detail pages to have a prominent search bar with advanced functionality and product filters. 

Another factor for online retailers to consider when creating a strategy: prospective customers could “walk in” to your digital store in any number of ways, as opposed to going in at the equivalent of a curated brick-and-mortar main entrance. Online shoppers might essentially drop in from the ceiling by clicking on a Google or Amazon ad for something like a Mother’s Day gift, which might either take them straight to a product detail page or let them do a category search or select category facets. In that process, they aren’t exposed to home-page merchandising or anything equivalent to the physical-store experience of walking up to displays and through aisles.

Optimize for omnichannel

To create a strong retail strategy for your site, you also want to offer an omnichannel retail shopping experience, meaning that the journey is consistently fabulous and integrated, across not just your site but also your mobile app, kiosks in your physical store, marketing emails, social media posts, and other avenues your digital and physical-store customers may traverse. If someone buys something online, can they easily return it to a store? If it’s out of stock when they find its shelf in your store, can they easily just go on your site and order it? Can they pick up their online order curbside? All of those types of customer-service touchpoints must seamlessly align in order to impress your shoppers.

So as you can see, with online shopping, creating an enticing customer journey can be relatively complicated. So what’s your strategy? Where and how do you attempt to lead your online customer so that they’re likely to emerge satisfied, with you having made a nice sale? An effective ecommerce shopping expedition must account for all the possible variations of the experience and create an intuitive digital path for the customer to follow. 

Put the customer first

In the best of physical stores, It’s not always easy to pull off first-rate customer service. Salespeople approach shoppers, answer questions, ring up transactions, and process refunds. If a customer has a beef about something, odds are that the clerk or store manager can pick up on their discontent and offer a remedy to prevent them from leaving with a chip on their shoulder.

For ecommerce sites, without the right features in place, ensuring great customer service can be potentially more elusive. Online, the customer is, for all intents and purposes, alone. If they can’t find what they need, or it’s taking them too long, they’re likely to jump off the site and try another online retailer. 

What can your strategy include? 

  • Ecommerce sites can attempt to replicate traditional customer service by providing comprehensive FAQs and prominent contact information (with quick responses to any questions) 
  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, many online businesses started using AI-driven pop-up chatbots (automated and impersonal though they are) to simulate an offline customer-service experience
  • Online retailers can offer perks like free return shipping to help fend off potentially damaging negative reviews

Amplify your customers’ voices

If you want to implement an effective online retail strategy, you also need to provide user-generated commentary to convey a sense of transparency. Have you got a great product or service? Give your customers an easy way to shout about it. This could be through their writing of glowing reviews, commenting positively on a blog post, posting a positive opinion on a social media page, or maybe all three. 

People love to read other people’s reviews before making purchases, as they are typically wary of corporate retail marketing hype. According to Neilsen (2021), 88% of consumers globally most trust recommendations from people they know. Online reviews don’t quite qualify as “people they know” or word-of-mouth referrals, but they’re arguably the next best thing. 

Product quality is naturally key as well. As consumers become more judicious about product attributes, businesses must be able to generate consistently positive customer feedback. Many consumers won’t even consider products that have a customer rating of fewer than 3 or 4 stars. If enough people hate a glitch in your product, they’re going to turn off many more potential buyers by pointing it out for all to read.

Acknowledging your mishaps is just as crucial: your customer-service folks need to humbly and quickly respond to any public negative comments and offer a solution, such as a refund, discount, or even just a little perceived empathy. Not only does this serve to begin smoothing the customer’s feathers, it tells countless other potential customers that you’re compassionately listening and you genuinely care about their experiences with the product.

Aim for stellar search 

Speaking of a strategy for impressing your online customers, how’s your site search working? For ecommerce businesses, particularly those with a large product catalog, a sophisticated search feature that returns accurate, AI-based results is a must. But according to Baymard Institute, 61% of all ecommerce sites have below-acceptable search performance, which will “directly misalign with user’s actual search behavior and expectations.” 

Investing in effective AI-powered search can work wonders for your bottom line. Another veritable requirement for great online customer experiences: first-rate product discovery. Discovery software supplies features like item filtering (e.g. by size, color, price) to help customers narrow down their buying choices. Without high-quality discovery tools, shoppers must wade through product pages, which doesn’t make for a positive customer experience. The option to use discovery functionality simplifies and speeds up the navigation process, plus offers an alternative to using the search bar. 

Create a highly effective retail experience 

Who knows whether we’re in for more-relaxed post-pandemic living or we’ll have to deal with more uncertainty because of a continually mutating virus? And with all of this going on, who really knows what the future of retail holds? 

But regardless of what happens in 2022 and beyond, in light of so many consumers moving to ecommerce shopping because of restrictions during the pandemic, it’s no longer enough for online retailers to deliver a conventionally “good” digital retail experience. To beat out your competition, you must start with a retail marketing strategy that will make sure your site’s shopping journey experience rivals those of retail’s best (Amazon, Google, and the like), which are rightly known for their avid customer loyalty. 

Strategy tip: get an easy Search & Discovery solution

Algolia can help you set up the perfect retail strategy. We know exactly how to generate a more-powerful retail experience for your shoppers. We provide proven world-class AI-powered Search and Discovery functionality for ecommerce sites.

When you increase your online revenue by creating a shopper-delighting customer journey, chances are that in as little time as a few days, you’ll see impressive ROI. 

How much can your site metrics stand to improve? In reimagining what’s possible for your online retail sales and determining your online retail strategy, start by trying our quick profit simulator to get a rough idea of the impact of adding great search. Then, if you like those personalized estimates, we’re here and ready to help you implement a successful retail strategy and supercharge your site performance. Sign up for an Algolia free trial today and see what you think!

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