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Improve site engagement: What retailers can learn from the high street

By Katie Woodhead

Although customers are increasingly opting to shop online - sales are up 16.9% year-on-year according to the latest IMRG Capgemini Sales Index - many ecommerce retailers still struggle to create immersive and relevant experiences that encourage longer dwell time and increased customer conversions.

Brands would do well to take lessons in visual merchandising techniques from brick-and-mortar stores which excel not only at enticing shoppers through their doors, but cleverly designing store layouts in ways that encourage shoppers to spend time there while inspiring them to make product purchases in the process.

This article will detail the best ways retailers can structure their websites to match the allure of the high street. Let’s jump in.

Grab Attention: The Homepage

The homepage is an online retailer’s shop window and an opportunity for visual merchandisers to give customers a flavour of what the brand represents. Fashion retailer Farfetch’s homepage is reminiscent of a magazine’s editorial layout, with images that have been chosen to assert the brand’s directional, high-fashion identity.

There’s also an invitation to sign up to Farfetch’s newsletter (to encourage loyalty) - a handy shopping guide, plus an easy-to-spot search button for those shoppers who want to fast-track their shopping journey to a specific item.

Farfetch homepage

Learn your way around: Site Navigation

The homepage not only needs to act as a brand ambassador, but also serve to direct the customer towards the next stage of their shopping journey, in the same way that signage does in a physical store. The navigation bar represents the digital version of this store signage, and should be populated with simple messages that make the journey easy and quick to follow - this is not the place to include every single product sub-category in a brand’s store catalogue, as this will simply overwhelm the shopper.  

Instead, keep things simple and clean, like Beauty Bay does with its clear dropdown list of main shopping categories, plus a section that includes directions to inspirational content like blogs and make-up tutorials.

Beauty Bay homepage

The Importance of Product Layout: Category Pages

The art of persuasive merchandising online has its challenges. There is a limit to the number of items a retailer can display to customers on a screen compared to the shop floor. According to our own observations, shoppers typically see between 30 and 50 products in their field of vision on a desktop device, wheras the number of products a customer sees when browsing in-store is likely to be far higher. This figure diminishes further on a mobile, where there are typically two products displayed on each product row.

As retailers are unable to showcase full ranges, product relevancy becomes a top business priority. When deciding which items to display on a category page, the best approach is to break down the online shopper’s journey into the following ‘problem – solution’ scenarios:

1. The shopper knows what they want but needs guidance to make the right choice.

Solution: Offer recommendations such as ‘people who bought that also bought this’ to help guide them to their perfect product.

2. The shopper doesn’t know what they want or what they should buy next.

Solution: Apply personalisation based on an analysis of previous customer behaviour and on what similar customers purchased.

3. The shopper is a regular customer and a loyal brand enthusiast.

Solution: Push brand stories and new trends that will engage and inspire.

Organise with Creativity and Control

Organising category pages successfully requires a combination of automated technology that can track user behaviour to push relevant products to the front with speed, as well as creative control, to allow brands to push popular trends and products that align with brand messaging and overarching business goals.

Boohoo.com relies upon automated merchandising solutions to help shoppers find a specific style of dress from its ‘New In’ range - a digital version of an in-store assistant who’s on-hand to advise customers.

Boohoo webpage

Click on a specific dress and there’s a link inviting shoppers to view similar outfits. By doing so, a new screen pops up with a row of options that can be seen without having to scroll down the page.

Boohoo dresses

Despite advances in AI and machine learning, which can manage this type of merchandising easily, it simply isn’t possible to programme software to factor in all business requirements. Humans are still much better placed at understanding strategic priorities from a brand and a creative perspective.

For example, each of Boohoo’s yellow dresses could feature in a variety of categories apart from ‘New In’, such as ‘Going Out’, ‘Summer Dresses’, ‘Maxi Dresses’ and so on. Online merchandisers therefore regularly make creative decisions about which category is best for driving sales of each product, and they adjust its position accordingly, in the same way that an in-store merchandiser will move product displays around to expose popular items to the greatest shopper footfall.

The same principle applies to the merchandising of discounted sale stock or specific promotional pages. High street stores are never shy about flagging up discounted products, so nor should online retailers be. After all, everyone loves a bargain! Ecommerce retailers can do this by making discounted and promotional sections highly visible and accessible on their websites.

Sports Shoes keeps it simple for customers to navigate their way through various brands and styles with a clearly organised ‘Summer Sale’ section on its website, making the discounted shopping journey a breeze for its target customer.

Sports Shoes homepage

It’s also down to the skill and decision-making capabilities of the online visual merchandiser to express a brand’s unique identity - using all data points at their disposal to optimise a site’s trading ability without compromising on the aesthetics of a beautiful listings page.

Selfridges is a good case in point. Recently recognised as ‘Best Department Store in the World’ for the fourth time for its leadership in delivering an exceptional customer experience, its elegantly designed website is designed to mirror the same feeling.

Selfridges clothes

From women’s and men’s fashion to shoes, bags, beauty, and electrical goods, every category on Selfridges’ website is laid out in a uniform way and in the same colour palette - with three high-quality images on each row. Hover on an item and an alternative shot is revealed to showcase further intricate product details to shoppers, to inspire them to become even more engaged.

This level of consistency is key when displaying products online. Customers are likely to hop back and forth across a site, so it can be jarring if the layout of category pages keeps changing. Similarly, the selection of individual product images needs to conform to the site’s overarching design and brand strategy.

A best practice approach is to offer the same number of shots and views of items throughout each category, as well as making the most of the space available, like luxury fashion retailer SSENSE does.

Instead of squeezing the product display shots onto the left-hand side of a page as many retailers do, a single image takes centre stage, which allows the customer to see the fashion product in all its glory. This helps to keep the product at the forefront of the customer’s mind, and brings it into full focus at all times so that the shopper is inspired to visualise it on themselves and, ultimately, in their shopping baskets.

Stores do this well with their central mannequin displays by pushing products to the front of the customer vision while emphasising how they can be worn in a variety of ways. The key is capturing and maintaining customer attention. Without unnecessary distractions, the customer can be fully engaged with the product and the overall experience, which has a big impact on the ways that shoppers purchase their desired products, both in-store and online.

SSENSE coat

Art Meets Science for Stand-Out Results

Visual merchandising online is therefore both a science and an art. By using a mix of automated technology and by visualising the online journey in the same way as that of a shopper browsing in-store, retailers can create digital customer experiences that match the high street and even surpass it.

The secret to success is combining the insights and efficiencies that technology and automation can bring to the visual merchandising table, while respecting, celebrating, and utilising the tried-and-tested creative tactics that are typically applied in-store.

Katie Woodhead, Head of Business Consulting, ATTRAQT

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