If we think back to the late 90's and the 2000's when online shopping was in its infancy, people would get most of their shopping done in physical stores that were already using a range of smart tactics to lure customers into buying as much as possible. Entering a department store meant entering a world of smells, music, and aesthetic product placements that were all designed to captivate the senses and create a sense of urgency to buy.
When we look at the layout of a classic department store, the store would typically be structured like a maze to force customers to get lost in a sea of products while they made their way from one floor to the next. This merchandising and floor layout plan was of course designed purposefully to encourage users to consider a vast number of products in addition to the product that they actually wanted to buy. Indeed, today, this is still the case as many stores fill their spaces with entrancing displays to capture the customer eye.
But with the introduction of eCommerce on desktop PCs, the number of products that a customer would see during a shopping journey suddenly became heavily reduced. Users increasingly began ditching a physical trip to a store in favour of desktop browsing, where they would typically view between 30 to 50 products on a screen instead of around 500 or more on the shopping rails and visual displays in a store.
Then, with the dramatic uplift of mobile phone ownership, came mobile shopping, which worked to further reduce the virtual shelf space due to the smaller sizes of the mobile phone screens in comparison to their desktop / laptop counterparts. Customers then had to adapt to viewing rows of 3 to 5 products before committing to a buy or fleeing because of a badly designed mobile shopping page.
The overall impact of this shift has been the narrowing down of customer product placements as customers have moved to favour digital shopping sprees that give much less room for retailers to showcase full product ranges. It has therefore become much more crucial for brands to ensure they serve up the most relevant products to customers in the shopping process, as brands now don't have the capacity to showcase their full ranges on tiny digital screens. We could therefore surmise that a strong correlation exists between the importance of product relevancy and the decrease of shopping screen sizes.
So, what is this all-important relevancy factor which brands now need to consider as a top business priority? To summarise simply, it's a mix between automation and creativity and control. In some cases, it is more automation than control, but in order to stay relevant, both methods are important. The shopper needs to be guided at all times in a controlled and formulated way just like the planned architecture of a department store, which guides shoppers through an intricate network of stairways, product shelves and visual displays even if the shopper just came to buy a light bulb.
To give some examples of how we may structure this guidance for different customers, we can slot the shopper's store journey into the following potential scenarios:
- The shopper knows exactly what they want -> The onsite search experience needs to guide the shopper as fast as possible to their desired product(s)
- The shopper knows what they want but needs to be guided to make the right choice -> Wisdom-of-the-crowd recommendations such as “people who bought this also bought that" will help guide the shopper to an informed choice
- The shopper doesn't yet know what they want or what they should buy next -> 1 to 1 personalization can be applied here based on an analysis of previous customer behaviour. Brands could make the assumption that since the shopper bought products A and B in the past and currently expresses an interest in products from category C, then they should be guided to product X. Brands could also focus on what similar customers bought to guide the customer to relevant products.
- The shopper wants to be inspired or is a brand enthusiast -> Brand stories, visual merchandizing, and trends created by the brand and, more specifically, visual merchandisers will guide the shopper through an engaging shopping experience that will encourage them to buy.
When creating this bespoke approach to help customers shop for relevant products, we can see that there is a strong mix between automation, such as search, wisdom-of-the-crowd and personalization, but also creativity and control such as brand strategy, visual merchandising techniques and attractive aesthetics. These crucial starting points should therefore be followed in order to help brands stay ahead of the game, even when it drastically changes, as it has done from the late 90s to the present day.