Why the Secret to Nailing Your E-Commerce Strategy Requires Lighting Up the Senses
Have you ever compared your online shopping experiences to your in-store experiences? Physical and digital retail experiences should both be inspirational and filled with entertainment and emotion. But that doesn’t change the fact that when it comes to engaging customers and eliciting sales, physical retail has a “leg up” on e-commerce because real-world shopping experiences naturally engage each of our senses and therefore they engage us. Which is exactly why the most effective e-commerce strategies moving forward will intentionally and thoughtfully seek to light up our senses — all of them, even our “sixth” sense.
While e-commerce’s share of retail volume has been steadily expanding over the past decade, it’s just now approaching 20 percent — meaning that 80 percent of retail commerce today still happens in person. Consider in-store experiences, even homogenized experiences like grocery stores. Compared to online shopping, merchants and brands engaging consumers in the physical world have unmatched opportunities to influence them via sensory and story-like engagement, including store layout, merchandising efforts, scents, audio and conversation.
In order to compete, online retailers must intentionally deliver elements of that in-person experience to proactively meet consumers’ implicit expectations and generate impact, too. Admittedly, it’s hard to do well, and that’s why this kind of experience is often missing in the realm of e-commerce. But it shouldn't be.
From delivering effective visual demonstration tools and digital twins to facilitating tight integrations with physical retail locations as a means toward maximizing both “touch” and “sight,” to using predictive artificial intelligence, purchase history and third-party data sources to tap into our “ESP,” online retailers can weave sense-forward elements into their strategies and impact their bottom line.
We know for a fact that the most effective way to connect to the emotional needs of one’s customers is to proactively deliver things that trigger as many senses as possible. That means consistently factoring for sight, sound, smell, touch, taste and ESP.
Expand the visual experience with personalization and interactivity both inside and outside the viewport. Consumer data and personalization platforms allow merchants to present the right images for each customer. Recent AI advances make it possible to adapt photos and even videos to consumer profiles dynamically, allowing products to be presented in a context familiar and unique to each customer — on the fly, and without any burden on your merchandising team.
Great photography in a well-conceived user interface is a starting point, but what about making visual experiences interactive? Allow customers to zoom, rotate and interact with your products, or use AI and augmented reality experiences to allow consumers to put themselves into the clothing or to place furniture in their home — see Walmart’s “Be Your Own Model” feature or Lowe’s “Envisioned” feature.
Consider how you use video and to what end. Are you including sound or a soundtrack? If the latter, opt for guided selling instead and facilitate access to local language agents who can assist as needed. Make demonstration videos available on your website, of course, but also on the platforms where your customers spend their time so that they feel immersed. Live shopping experiences offer this sensory experience as well.
Admittedly, this one is harder to create in a digital realm. But consider the feelings brought about during an unboxing experience, for instance, or the impact of that experience. Perhaps it’s a matter of cluing potential customers into that “new car” or “new bike” smell by focusing on the total wow.
Ever thought about how a truly great experience can actually trick your brain into craving something? A great combination of visuals, sentimentality and nostalgia can literally trigger your brain into nearly “tasting” things — and push a potential sale over the line.
By delivering visual demonstration tools and guided selling functionality, in addition to creating tight integrations with physical retail locations if available, you can give your customers the sort of tactile access they’ve probably been missing.
In truth, it sounds more challenging than it is because it’s possible even at a basic level. A simple, streamlined returns process creates touchpoint access and enables customers to feel comfortable buying without the added risk.
This one is seemingly boundless — and its potential impact is still very much in the “what if” category.
But I can guarantee you this: The use of predictive AI — which uses details based on customers’ purchase history, coupled with third-party data sources and their behaviors — to allow us to predict what they might want to buy and when and then get those products in front of them (curated to their size, preference and reflective of available inventory), is an incredible asset only e-commerce is poised to take true advantage of.
The ideal of temet nosce (“know thyself”) is a prelude to a business’ success, but predictive analytics cover emptor nosce (“know thy buyer”). In the increasingly data-enriched practice of e-commerce, retailers rely on AI and machine learning to move beyond simple statistical analysis (e.g., most frequent customers, highest AOV customers, etc.) to truly understand their customers and better engage them through improved segmentation trend analysis.
For example, merchants tend to overindex on obvious data, leading to increased retargeting of top customers rather than identifying underperforming segments. Once the poorly engaged customers are identified and treated, AI/ML-powered tools can combine on-hand and external data via the onsite interactions of these engagements and allow you to tailor various media to fit them — e.g., static or even generated landing page content and product descriptions, search/cross-sell/upsell recommendations — and also allow you to set prices dynamically.
The distinction between in-person and online shopping is no longer as obvious as it once was. Prior to the advent of the smartphone, cheap cellular data and sufficient computer power, online shopping existed only at one’s desk. Now augmented experiences are erasing the line between online and offline shopping modes. Outside of a brick-and-mortar store, shoppers bring the web experience to life when they use their mobile devices to “view this product in your room,” and in-store experiences are digitally enriched with smart mirrors in dressing rooms as well as apps such as Target’s, which help consumers navigate, locate, discount and endlessly acquire products not in stock.
Which is to say that the experiential “set point” of shopping experiences is constantly trending towards a blend of online and offline, and as consumers encounter, enjoy and are empowered by these experiences, what was once novel and exciting will eventually become the boring standard upon which progress iterates. The brands that are at or near the front of these trends will cut through the background noise and rise above competitors reacting to progress rather than creating progress.
Ben Marks is director of global market development at Shopware, an e-commerce platform.
Ben Marks brings a wealth of experience in development, education, and community engagement to Shopware. With a global footprint, he has traversed the world, sharing his invaluable insights with ecommerce developers and practitioners. Prior to join Shopware, Ben made significant contributions to the Magento ecosystem as an esteemed educator, facilitator, and strategic advisor since 2011. His achievements have earned him widespread recognition as one of the brightest personalities in the field.