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Mobiles are the new showrooms

"Customers coming into a store today are better informed than the sales staff."

So says Jörg Geilgens, Client Solution Manager at IBM.

This isn’t down to poor training by retailers, but because the vast majority of people with a smartphone (88% to be precise) use it to carry out research before even entering a physical store.

This new form of retail therapy means customers visit stores on a mission to buy, having already done their browsing online. This means they are more likely to buy, making this mobile habit – called ROPO – vital to retailers.

The downside is that if your online shop isn’t mobile friendly, these ROPO-ers won’t be heading your way. And that’s pretty much everyone with a mobile – do you know anyone in the UK and Europe without a smartphone?

If you want to become a real ROPO magnet, you need to be more than just mobile-friendly – you need to be mobile-optimised. This means making it as easy as possible to search for your products with a smartphone. So where do you start?

First, make sure your online shop is optimised for mobile rather than using an app. Why? Because a recent survey by McKinsey showed that mobile-optimised sites are used twice as often by smartphone users than shopping apps. So it’s better to set up a robust mobile site and to ensure it functions properly. Key essentials are fast load times, an intuitive shopping basket function, trouble-free checkout and features that do the following:

Show the user’s nearest store

Your online shop should automatically determine the location of each visitor, using their IP address or GPS data (with their permission, of course) so you can provide details of their nearest store and related information. Visitors should also be able to choose the store they want details about, regardless of their location.

Make local ranges available online

Recent IBM research involving 110,000 consumers showed that 60% thought it was important to know whether they can buy a product before visiting a store. So your online shop should provide stock information about local stores to prevent customers from making frustrating unnecessary trips. This means up-to-the-minute stock data is essential so visitors can avoid out-of-stock situations with minimum delay.

Incorporate a rapid, intelligent search function

Abandonment (when customers leave your website before completing their purchase) is the bane of online retailing. To reduce this your search function should be able to process data from all online linked source systems into a single index and display the most relevant results from the correct range in response to each query in milliseconds. User-friendliness is also vital, particularly on smartphones and tablets. The answer is using fault-tolerant software, which can deal with very precise queries, and placing the search box in the most prominent possible position.

Optimise the quality of your search results

Ideally, your search function should feature self-optimised search technology so that it learns from the shopping habits of your customers. Then the most popular products will appear at the top of the search results list, which is key to driving sales, particularly among customers using small screens. The actual criteria used to rank the search results should also be carefully defined, including not just popularity, but also profit margin, how up to date the product is and availability – both online and in physical stores.

Combine the benefits of searching and browsing

Include filtering options to help customers who key in general queries (‘trousers’, ‘hammer’, etc), which tend to generate large numbers of results, to find what they want in just a few clicks. These filters respond to attributes in product data feeds and should adapt dynamically to changes in the product range. However, product data from offline stores is frequently unsuitable for mobiles, so if too few refinement options appear when searching on the go, filters are displayed more than once, or inconsistent units of measurement are displayed, optimise your product data feeds.

Make it quick and easy to find key advice

Your search and navigation function should also direct mobile customers towards key advice and information, such as how-to videos, expert tips, relevant articles, offers and brochures, which helps them decide what they want, improves their shopping experience and also boosts your online shop’s search engine optimisation. Incorporating this content into search creates more space on key pages.

Although browsing online has become the most important way to decide what to buy, people still want to shop in store, with McKinsey revealing that 58% of mobile users remain loyal to offline shopping. This makes it vital for retailers to make mobile research as easy as possible, while also improving the physical shopping experience. In fact, efficient mobile search can help here too. By simply arming sales assistants with tablets in-store, so they can call up product information, means that they are at least as knowledgeable as their customers.

By Kevin Sparks, Commercial Director at FACT-Finder