What Offline Can Teach Online

In the early days, online retail built itself upon the foundation of convenience and value. It was easier to buy online, and many times cheaper. With the astonishing growth of e-commerce, and the unique combination of an always on store with relatively low overhead, some online store owners would assume they’ve got a leg up on their offline counterparts.

On the contrary, I would argue we can learn much from the offline world. After all, with hundreds of years of experience, traditional retailers are in many ways much more polished than their online counterparts. Here’s 7 pointers we can take from the brick and mortar world.

Merchandising Matters: Countless hours of research have been performed on product merchandising. Grocery stores make a killing off selling prime locations on their shelves. I believe we are just starting to learn how to effectively merchandise online. How much thought have you given to how your products are ordered on your category pages? What about the way you order your categories in your nav? It kills me every time I see products or categories ordered alphabetically. Should accessories really be listed first if you’re known for your jeans? Probably not.

Packaging Matters: Few retailers consider packaging when selling products online. There’s a reason manufacturers spend millions on package design and testing, because it works. It’s a shame to not carry those elements online. Far from your typical product page, every product on the HoMedics website features a flash presentation, along with several tabs, one of which shows the product packaging. Too many product pages suffer from extreme boringness, offering a lifeless, overly-templated presentation of products. Showing packaging serves gift givers especially well, since they care about what the box looks like when the gift is opened.

Shopping is Social: Shopping mall empires are built upon the simple fact that shopping is a social activity. While our web is becoming increasingly social, online shopping seemingly lags behind. While services such as ShopTogether go so far as to allow customers to browse together, simpler website features such as “Get a Friend’s Opinion” email form can take small steps in that direction. I’m also a big fan of public wish lists, and allowing your customers to create and customize profiles on your site.

Social Proof: No one wants to be the first to try a product. When perusing the aisles of a store, its not hard to see what sells and what collects dust. You can also observe the shopping behaviors of other customers. Where do your online shoppers go to see what’s popular? Do you allow customers to sort by popularity or reviews on your category pages?

Product Bundling: Walk into any department store, and you’ll find products grouped together not only by category, but by common purpose. Some clothing stores have a shop by outfit feature, a perfect example of bundling. Product bundling not only serves to raise the average basket size, but it helps customers see practical benefits from a group of products. After all, what’s more appealing, a t-shirt by itself, or a whole new look you can show off to friends on the weekend?

Location Matters: Setting up shop in a prime location makes all the difference. How does location translate in the online world? Domain names and search engine results. Are you on a busy street corner (Google results page 1) or a desolate backroad (Google results page 29). Is your virtual location (domain name) easily communicated, and credible sounding? Cheap-Laptop-Computers.com may help for SEO, but will it ever spread like wildfire via word to mouth?

Answers Matter: Have you ever made a serious in-store purchase without asking the store employee at least one question? Unknown millions have been lost in e-commerce due to unanswered questions due to inept product pages (And no, FAQ pages are not the solution) What about letting your customers answers questions for each other, like BackCountry’s Product Wall Q&A feature?. Customers are more than eager to help each other. The problem is most sites don’t let them.

Yes, we have a lot to learn from our traditional retail brethren. I’m excited to see how online retail transforms over the next few years. We’re still just a bunch of toddlers wobbling around in brave new world 🙂