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The Dawn of Experiential Commerce

Guest blog by Tom Smith

You’ve heard many people claim that the walls of brick and mortar stores are crashing down spectacularly. That the old school architects are now being replaced by cleverly coded predictive web shopping experiences. That we’ll buy everything online: The numbers certainly still seem to suggest it.

The meteoric rise of pureplay eCommerce ventures like ASOS and Zappos has had in-store managers trembling. As the traditional retailers moved into eCommerce, the very same in-store managers would cling on for dear life to their revenues, even competing against their eCommerce colleagues for a share of the customer’s virtual and leather wallets.

And then something called “omnichannel” started happening: Devices called smartphones took over the world, and social media erupted. We came across mCommerce, tCommerce and social commerce, and retailers started scrambling just to be there – wherever the new “there” was – and keep up without really understanding what it meant to offer a shopping experience on mobile, tablet or any other channel that touched the customer.

Of course, we can virtually window shop on our tablets, we can purchase through a blog post, we can complete our online orders with a single click. But, as we spend more of our time shopping this way and as online retail becomes increasingly saturated and competitive, speed and convenience are less the deciding factors for consumers. With the increasing maturity of eCommerce and omnichannel retailing, the successful retailer of tomorrow understands that it’s now all about experiential commerce. Making the customer experience as inspiring, consistent, personalized and wow-inducing as possible will be the driver of conversion, revenues and loyalty in the next stage of eCommerce.

How are online retailers transitioning towards this age of experiential commerce?

Investing in data science

A true understanding of future customer behavior is really what the data geeks in eCommerce want to achieve. Yet so many of the data and insights initiatives in organizations today revolve around past behavior: looking in the rear-view mirror. In the world of lightening-paced eCommerce, this is not so useful. All efforts should focus on the future customer. The Big Data spectrum for eCommerce insights is vast – reviews, past purchases, social interactions, web behavior, inventory, financial and more. And they aren’t going to magically blend into one super-database. As a result, eCommerce executives are now looking to invest in data scientists and technologies that blend insights together, using them to deliver more relevant and personalized shopping experiences.

Figuring out what “omnichannel” really is

For every traditional retailer today, the term “omnichannel” is an omnipresent one. And it’s one that offers a fresh way of thinking about how to blend and make the best out of the interaction between channels for a customer, at all the different touch points they will have with a retailer today.

Omnichannel shopping is at the heart of experience commerce, as it takes the more strategic viewpoint of the customer being at the center of a seamless retail experience. It avoids ‘doing mobile’ or ‘doing social’, just for the sake of mobile and social. An omnichannel approach considers the customer, his journey, his touch points and delivering an experience that is consistent with the retail brand and the way it wants to engage the customer.

Personalization

It’s the holy grail of replicating that personal shopper experience online. Except, for all the hype over the years, personalization is still in its infancy. The opportunity to tailor the online experience with a 1 to 1 engagement with the customer was the promise of personalization, yet the reality is that understanding the common behaviors and characteristics of customers supersedes the need to treat Joe as Joe. The smart thinking now around personalization is to treat Joe as ‘other-people-like-Joe.’

Personalization in eCommerce generally revolves around tactics such as recommendations (to drive cross-sell and upsell), personalized search and navigation results (to drive conversion), and personalized content (to drive relevancy and a tailored experience). The businesses that are innovating in these areas, such as ASOS, are investing in technologies and resources that bring these capabilities together, and can deliver a differentiated experience unique to shoppers with common behaviors and characteristics.

Rich content marketing

Rich and diverse content marketing is fast-becoming a way to differentiate in online retail. Customers are able to watch videos of the latest gadget being tested by experts and purchase there and then. They’re also free to read blog posts from fashion bloggers about the latest trends, and complete the look with a click. This revenue-driving practice isn’t just confined to electronics and fashion products. Video and rich media is helping drive conversion of products across all categories: Funky office supplies online retailer Poppin is using video to enrich the experience of buying storage boxes.

Of course, all of these investments and transitions towards a better online shopping experience are not risk-free. Marketing, merchandising and IT need to be tightly aligned to deliver these experiences that are largely dependent upon technology and business working together in harmony. There are still major questions around the consolidation, the making sense of, and the gathering of disparate data sources to inform business decisions. And then there’s the challenge of keeping up with the pace of change of things like mobile, mCommerce and social engagement. There’s a long way to go, but the age of experience commerce is almost upon us.

Tom Smith, Product Marketer with SDL, is a trend-watcher and technology evangelist.

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