Multichannel Merchant: Who should “control” search in eCommerce?

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eCommerce merchants are in danger of forgetting the elephant in the room – the consumer. “Control” over the eCommerce search process naturally starts with the merchant but should quickly move to the consumer.

In this article in Multichannel Merchant, Twan Vollebregt (CEO of Traverz) shines a light on why customers are not being engaged on their own shopping journeys. And why the idea of giving up control could in fact be the key to better performance.

We think it’s time for a change. What do you think?

If you take a step back and remove your retail or trading or marketing or technology hat for a moment, doesn’t it seem ludicrous that we spend so much time trying to control what consumers see? Sure, we want to provide the consumer with guidance and support, but that is very different from the relatively prescriptive way that most platforms currently drive the customer journey. We extensively ‘merchandise’ and ‘personalise’ the search results, at significant effort. It is a case of “platform knows best”.

But is all of that effort actually paying off? Maybe our desire to control the customer journey is actually impeding our ability to deliver a better customer experience and achieve higher conversions. The idea of giving up control is not one that is often considered by eCommerce providers, yet we should look at why this could in fact be the key to better performance.

When consumers land on our site, we want to provide a positive initial experience by tailoring the products shown. For example, in summer we display bathing suits more prominently; in winter ski outfits. Modern eCommerce platforms include so-called merchandising capability to allow such boosting or burying of products based on a set of (generally manually-entered) rules. This is useful for the start of the consumer’s search journey, when we want to shape the search results in a direction that shows proven uplift, compared to simply using a random ordering.

On top of merchandising, modern eCommerce platforms use search engines with sophisticated ‘personalisation’ algorithms to tailor the results for the specific consumer. This uses third/second/first-party data and segmentation information (when available) to re-order the search results to be in line with an assumed purchase intent. In essence we try to guess what the consumer is most likely to be interested in.

All of this merchandising and personalisation effort is beneficial at the start of the customer journey. The platform’s efforts to control what the consumer sees leads to more useful results for the consumer and higher conversion for the platform.

But… we should remember that all these efforts are part of a consumer search journey. Merchandising and personalisation assist the search, but what about the consumer and the journey? We are in danger of forgetting the elephant in the room – the consumer – who is on a multi-step journey. At each step the consumer is learning about the available products and developing a better idea of their preferences, and thereby forming or reshaping their purchase intent.

This purchase intent is far more powerful information than pre-defined merchandising rules, or personalisation based on pre-assumed intent. Through consumer feedback, we should let their actual intent become the driving force behind the tailoring of the search results. Merchandising and guess-based personalisation should gradually take a back seat.

‘control’ over the search process therefore naturally starts with the merchant but should quickly move to the consumer. If merchants focus too much on controlling the search, they are actually in grave danger of getting in the consumer’s way – frustrating rather than delighting them.

Search in eCommerce is based on lots of implicit consumer data, allowing technology to build a picture in an attempt to predict what the user wants. There is only one problem. Consumers themselves have a much better understanding of their real purchase intent than technology will ever be able to guess. By ceding control, eCommerce providers can achieve the next level of conversion performance whilst simultaneously providing their consumers with better user experience.

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