The Rise of the E-Commerce-First Brand
Think for a moment of the last time you shopped in a store. A real, physical store with shelves and thousands of products. If it was a grocery store, you probably grabbed a cart and went up and down the aisles grabbing things you needed from a mental list of stuff. If it was a clothing or department store, chances are you had a specific thing in mind you needed, so you headed to that section of the store.
A physical store, or even a brand’s website, is, of course, optimized for this behavior. Retailers have long learned to place higher-margin brands at eye level, deals on endcaps and candy at the checkout counter. They group similar products together to save shoppers time. That way, they can maximize the revenue and profit they generate from the limited space and product selection they have.
Brands, in turn, have maximized their products for this environment. They do things like creating catchy messages to increase mental availability in-store, or put things in flashy packages that look good from a few yards away.
Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t always support how most people shop online, where space and product selection is unlimited. Rather than browsing, online consumers have a different process:
- First, they type a generic term like “blender” or a brand like “Vitamix.”
- Then, they usually see a limitless selection of products.
- Next, they decide which they want to investigate based on price, product description, product image and maybe the number of stars on a customer review.
- Finally, they head for the reviews, do their research and eventually come to a decision.
While this may not be an earth-shattering insight, it’s surprising how few brands consider it in their overall product strategy. While many of them think about their product mixes in terms of physical shelf space, they rarely consider them in terms of the mental space of a person shopping online.
Not all brands are missing the point. Some e-commerce-first brands such as Anker, PattyBoutik and Ecovacs Robotics put online shopping behavior above all else, and tie their marketing and even product strategy to it. As a result, they have a different approach which exerts a major influence on their businesses:
- They anticipate shopping searches: Most makers of charging cords tend to target specific devices, like the Galaxy 7. Instead, Anker’s products fit into the mental space of an online shopper. If you search for chargers on Amazon.com, Anker’s most popular and versatile ones are served up first. However, if you enter “Galaxy 7 charger” instead, a suitable Anker product will pop up in a paid ad.
- They monitor how people are searching: E-commerce-first brands also closely monitor how people are searching. The retailer asks if “hand vac” is more popular than “stick vac,” is “Kleenex” better than “facial tissue.” For example, Anker reports that two-thirds of the products it develops fail, but it's willing to create slight variants on existing products so it can keep in front of the changing search patterns.
- They cover all bases on Amazon: Whether it’s paid ads, optimized pages or perfect SEO, e-commerce-first companies optimize every aspect of their Amazon experience. For example, challenger telescope brand GSkyer has managed to vault to the top of Amazon's rankings with a small but focused product selection. It creates content that adds value, optimizes text to popular search terms, and categorizes products so they show up (legitimately, of course) as best-sellers. The brand also answers customer questions and responds to reviews quickly and kindly.
- They own their distribution: Search for “black cocktail dress” on Amazon and you'll see top results dominated by small manufacturers. These companies are optimizing their supply chains in a number of ways, including shipping directly from factories to Amazon’s distribution centers, sizing packages to fit into Amazon-standard boxes, and constantly monitoring pricing relative to competitors to ensure optimal stocking levels.
Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list of things smart brands can do online, but it shows that when you think e-commerce first, you end up with a much different product line and presentation than you otherwise would.
Moving forward, it’s important that brands not merely learn how to stand out on the digital shelf, but also how to plan for the digital shelf. They need to stop looking at e-commerce as an afterthought and start giving it a prime seat at the strategy table. Consumers aren't browsing through commerce categories online anymore; they’re going right past them, completely blind to anything except what they want to buy. That has consequences marketers need to understand.