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Lest you naively begin an effort to understand every little detail of e-tailing, Lauren Freedman, author of It's Just Shopping (Direct Marketing Association, 2002) will quickly remind you: “Shopping is not and never will be a science.”

Especially from the perspective of understanding the consumer, the process of information gathering, making a purchase and deciding to return to one e-tail site or another all just...well, depends. There's no magic formula.

While It's Just Shopping does serve up an historical narrative of e-commerce--examining the merchant viewpoint, the development of technology, and checklists, timelines and graphs galore--the chapters on the consumer and the customer experience “challenge” made my marketing-brain snap to attention.

The Ever-Changing Shopper

What is different about shoppers here and now is that they are armed (with information) and dangerous (with demands). It's Just Shopping's “The Chameleon Shopper” chapter examines questions shoppers ask themselves, digs into who the shoppers are, and also details the four over-arching shopper levels.

The strength of this chapter lies in the compilation of material all in one place. I remember seeing the 2000 Cyber Dialogue studies (finding that advice from friends is a huge online inducement to try new products). I've read the reports about how time-saving and convenience are hugely important to US shoppers. I've absorbed case studies from the original e-tailing pioneers way back in the day. But having all of this information in an easily accessible format is a gift.

A few points from “The Chameleon Shopper” chapter:

• Specific categories attract shoppers that are more directed in nature. Others attract shoppers who are impulse-oriented or more information-gathering types.

• Home & Garden and Health & Beauty stand out as “late bloomers” experiencing the most growth.

• For the way e-shoppers behave, it's the slower starters or early laggards that may well prove to be some of the strongest categories online in the long term. (Apparel being one example).

• The bottom line: the consumer mindset must be continuously observed to refine the selling process.

The Challenging Customer Experience

According to a Modalis Research Technologies report cited in the customer experience chapter of It's Just Shopping, “Even today only 2 out of 10 attempts to make purchases online results in a sale with businesses missing $6.1 billion in sales.”

Reason enough to study up on customer experience? I think so.

In the same way the “The Chameleon Shopper” pulls together lots of data, studies and anecdotal experience from the e-tailing group's consulting work, “The Challenge of Customer Experience” is chock full of great reference material in just under 40 pages. In addition, this chapter pulls even more from the e-tailing group/DMA proprietary research, with the results of their 2001 Mystery Shopping documenting their secret shoppers walk from the ordering process through returns.

While discussing the Web's customer service opportunity in this chapter, Freedman points to a study showing convenience and ease-of-use as a key motivation for shopping online, and refers to core values for customers that include efficiency, speed-of-purchase and quality of experience pre- and post-purchase.

Further along, in a section discussing post-order communication, is mentioned as demonstrating its customer-centric attitude by tending to details like order confirmation and shipping confirmation emails.

Great Take-Aways of This Chapter:

• The checklists! This chapter includes very quick “to-review” lists for making sure you are tending to the customer at the points of Pre-purchase, Site Registration, Online Ordering and Returns.

• The discussion of strategies for keeping customers satisfied (and ensuring they don't abandon online shopping carts).

• The email communication section, where Freedman notes this point (among others): “21% of the merchants never answered” the mystery shopper's initial inquiry to customer service.

So Much Gained, So Much to Learn

Overall, It's Just Shopping definitely leaves you in awe of the speed with which e-commerce has developed, and with those companies that were the pioneers and survivors of it all. On the flip side, re-living the details of the development of e-commerce may also convince you to forgo sleep to keep your e-tailing channel competitive.

But “the Web is now part of the fabric of our culture,” according to Freedman, and we must realize that the online customer will only get more demanding. Especially since today's children growing into adults have been online from the get-go, e-commerce will be their natural default shopping platform.

The art is in continuing to read books like this and in listening and studying as the evolving shopper evolves.

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image of Andrea Learned
Andrea Learned is a noted author, blogger, and expert on gender-based consumer behavior. Her current focus is on sustainability from both the consumer and the organizational perspectives. Andrea contributes to the Huffington Post and provides sustainability-focused commentary for Vermont Public Radio.