Thursday, November 16, 2006

Web retail needs to be fun!

I was with a client last week, talking about online instore merchandising - a topic which hadn't crossed their minds, despite the fact that they're one of the best at merchandising in physical stores.  This is a discipline which is hardly given a second thought right now, but those who get good at it will find themselves ahead of the pack.  Even in 2006 when this piece was originally published, it was clear that this was an area ripe for exploitation - in 2010, no-one's yet picked up the challenge...

Christmas is hell.  The huddled masses descend on the high street, and walk really slowly in front of you.  They stop inexplicably in front of you to look at clothes that won’t fit them in a million years, and bring huge pushchairs into Oxford Street which they use to carve up peoples’ ankles and trap their shopping.

That’s why this year as every year, I’ll be sitting at home doing my shopping online.  An evening at home carves up the shopping pretty well, though a couple of glasses of wine can make some of the gift choices a little more adventurous.

But despite my air of insufferable smugness about not venturing forth onto the high street, I miss it.  As bah-humbug as I am, the carollers, the brass bands and the tinsel help to define the experience of shopping, and make it a richer one for customers and for stores.

Experience has long been recognised as a vital component of retail, and stores like Selfridges, Borders and HMV understand this, with events, themes and seasons helping to lift the occasion from the merely transactional to an emotionally rewarding and memorable episode.

So powerful is this impact on consumers that brands like Apple, Sony and Disney have their own stores – allowing the brand experience to be controlled and brought into a retail environment.  Famously, Apple don’t stop there – the experience of unwrapping an iPod is one of real pleasure, with superbly designed packaging that confers a palpable sense of quality and expectation as you work your way through it.

All these things support brand choice and premium – they’re imaginative and creative, but effective in business terms too.

Online though, much of the time I’ve got to create my own experience.  Online retail is a pretty sterile process for consumers, with the fun pretty much left out by most stores.  Far from making shopping fun, these guys rarely make it over the hygiene factors – accurate, attractive and navigable – with baffling navigation, inaccurate descriptions and poor copy conspiring to put off even the most determined of buyers. 

One of the UK’s biggest electrical retailers devotes acres of store space to displaying TVs.  Rows of them, all switched on so customers can judge the picture quality, with the whole thing designed to make it exciting to buy a TV.  Go to the online store, and the best you get for a £900 TV is one low resolution photo, and a list of its functions to help you choose.  I’m amazed anyone ever buys a TV from these guys – you certainly wouldn’t unless you’d been to see it in-store.

Copy, layout and reviews are critical to selling off the screen, and to see how it’s done properly, look at  Sparky, well-written copy supports firebox’s brand and user feedback is encouraged and featured.  The whole thing feels like it was put together by people having fun – and that works well with the novelty and gifting sector it occupies.

This isn’t because it’s easier to make this type of product sound interesting.  The approach works in clothing (, even technical support for your PC (

These are organisations who understand that as the consumer moves through the site, they are interested in buying – and can be encouraged in this by inspiring desire, focusing on the benefits and the excitement of ownership, allowing the transaction to become the means by which a consumer attains these, rather than the central feature of a visit.

This will be the biggest ever online Christmas for retailers, with the IMRG predicting that £7bn will be rung up on the web’s tills.  They estimate that’s a 40% increase on last year, making the web responsible for 10% of UK retail – 20% if you look at electricals. 

The stakes are high – so the patchy performance of some of the big players means there are huge opportunities for people with a passion for retail to make a big mark online in 2007.

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