Last week, I had the privilege of guest lecturing for Richard Last, a true legend in retailing, at the University of North Texas Global Digital Retailing Research Center. And as always, Richard left me with wisdom that has stayed top of mind ever since.
Richard has been studying the path of retail ecommerce closer than almost anyone, pretty much since retail ecommerce began. And through his leadership at JCPenney.com, Shop.org, the NRF Foundation and more, he has seen it all evolve – in his words – in three phases.
Most of us remember the beginnings of online retail. There were online catalogs, which were almost exactly like regular printed catalogs… only scanned in for the computer screen. Products weren’t any more findable than they’d be offline… in fact, they were harder to locate because slow upload times made it painfully inefficient to “turn the page.”
Retail knew it had to evolve to truly increase the revenue potential of online, and boy did it. By a decade ago, all top merchants were putting into place both the technology and processes to make actual search and categorization possible, while tying it all to back end supply chain and inventory for a full solution. Suddenly, there was an infrastructure full of required fields and stringent guidelines (e.g. take a photo or define a strict set of attributes) that connected the right products with demanding consumers.
Phase 2 got consumers close enough to the ideal online shopping experience that they started asking for even better.
Machines are faster. Online content is everywhere. Social conversations have become as much a marketing tool for retail as anything in the past. People would rather ask for what they really want than spend time sifting through a website that doesn’t understand their true needs. Understanding “me” is becoming an expectation.
Unfortunately, the entire infrastructure that created the “well oiled machine” of the ecommerce process is no longer helping – in fact, it’s holding merchants back from evolving with their customers. Retailers are now listening through social media or comments, and can hear from consumers that they want to search for shoes by “comfort level.” They’re also stocking product pages and buying guides full of extremely valuable and merchandising-rich information that they know drives conversion. Unfortunately, to add these new layers of data to the website discovery and navigation tools and add new steps to the product on-boarding process requires a shocking amount of work.
It’s Phase 3 that inspired us to build Edgecase (formerly Compare Metrics.) That notion that the very processes and tools that were put into place in “Phase 2” to drive better navigation are now hindering consumer discovery. People have out-evolved technology and the retail process, and its time to catch up.