Why websites generate much more than sales

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Brands achieve a far higher ROI if they treat their retail website and mobile app as an integral part of a customer’s journey, Michael Barnett heard at the Marketing Week 1-2-1 ecommerce summit.

Retailers’ websites are for more than just transactions. They are the starting point for a customer’s journey through the buying process, whether the final sale is made online or offline.

Websites and mobile apps should not be considered standalone sales channels, but part of the overall shopping experience, according to marketers from some of Britain’s biggest retail brands at Marketing Week’s 1-2-1 Ecommerce Summit last month.

Similarly, the audience heard, sales made online do not tell the whole story of an ecommerce strategy.

Sienne Veit, business development manager for new technologies at Marks & Spencer’s online operation M&S Direct, says: “Customers do not notice channels. They just see your brand, and anything that makes their life easier has got to be a good thing.”

Speakers at the event, from retailers including Shop Direct, Argos and Tesco, argued that a well-conceived ecommerce strategy is likely to increase overall sales across a business, rather than cannibalising sales at bricks-and-mortar stores.

Whether ecommerce sites are accessed via a mobile or desktop browser, giving customers more reasons to use them than just for making a transaction is fundamental to growing a business’s overall revenues

The mobile element of ecommerce also feeds into the same process, even if it has a distinct purpose from a website optimised for desktop computers, or from shopping in-store. Annabel Thorburn, head of mobile and web development at Tesco.com, says: “Mobile commerce is not a different way of shopping. Mobile allows browsing to take place where it previously couldn’t. But you cannot actually say if people are converting the sale on a mobile, on the website or in store.”

The portable nature of a smartphone makes a mobile website an ideal tool for comparing prices and products when shopping on the high street, or for researching information after seeing an ad while out and about. However, this is no guarantee of where, when or even if a purchase will eventually be made.

Veit at M&S Direct admits that once the benefits of the mobile web had been identified, part of the reason for the brand wanting to develop a site optimised for phones was being seen to be first to do so. She argues, however, that there is not necessarily any further competitive advantage in developing a smartphone app.

Appearing ahead of the curve in terms of an ecommerce app would be of little benefit in terms of consumers’ perceptions of the M&S brand, she says. “We have not yet found the thing that is repeatedly useful and engaging. When you see an app from M&S, it will be because it is something that you cannot do on the mobile web.”

Whether ecommerce sites are accessed via a mobile or desktop browser, giving customers more reasons to use them than just for making a transaction is fundamental to growing a business’s overall revenues. Brands should be looking to maximise their marketing opportunities by lengthening the time visitors stay on their site, and increasing their exposure to alternative products and information about goods and services.

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Argos says it has always been a multichannel retailer

However, James Balmain, head of ecommerce at home shopping group Shop Direct, says: “The vast majority of ecommerce sites have little unique content and do not provide a good customer experience.”

Retailers need to invest in creating their own content for websites, as well as encouraging user-generated content, Balmain told Marketing Week’s conference. This provides a reference point for anything that might help inform a purchase, and also benefits search engine optimisation, which can be enhanced further when users are encouraged to talk about their experiences and link from external sites like blogs.

“The aim of this activity should be to build things up to where you effectively own page one of Google,” he says.

Argos ecommerce controller Matt Roberts says customer reviews are one example of content that not only draws users to the company’s website, mobile site and app, but also feeds back into its product design. He points out that even though Argos had a low return rate before establishing its reviews site, that did not necessarily mean customers were always satisfied with its products.

He gives one instance of customers complaining that a wooden Argos wardrobe had plastic feet and a cardboard back. This influenced changes in the product’s specification, with knock-on effects for the perception of Argos’s designs. According to Roberts: “It improved customers’ impressions of our own-brand product quality.”

This was only possible as a result of being open to both positive and negative content appearing on the site. “We are as prepared to put up a one-star review as a five-star review. As long as it does not have swearing in it, it will go up,” says Roberts.

Understanding the impact of an ecommerce strategy requires a retail brand to take all of these factors into account, and to measure traffic originating from different sources accordingly. This might mean customers make a purchase after using an app, visiting the website or mobile site, or arriving from an external link. “There are three or four touchpoints on most orders. The last click is not the answer,” says Balmain at Shop Direct.

Moreover, it requires a brand to join up its thinking about how connected consumers also shop in store. Wherever they begin their journey to a purchase, this is only a part of a story where the customer might travel down several channels before choosing what to buy.

How Argos intergrates ecommerce

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Argos was an ecommerce pioneer, launching its first transactional website in 2000. The inventory of products the retailer now sells online has grown from 10,000 to 40,000. According to Argos online marketing controller Matt Roberts, £1.9bn or 46% of the brand’s sales are attributable to multichannel shopping.

Argos’s content strategy also draws users to the website. It has generated more than 1 million customer reviews, 74,000 Facebook fans and 11,000 Twitter followers. The company will also be launching a home shopping TV channel later this year, directing viewers to the website or call centre to make purchases.

“Argos has always been a multichannel retailer,” Roberts told Marketing Week’s 1-2-1 Ecommerce Summit last month. Customers might begin by researching products on the website or iPhone app, but those channels are just as likely to be the starting point for making a purchase in store.

One of the company’s first website innovations was its “check and reserve” feature, which allows online shoppers to check whether a particular product is in stock at their local branch, and then to reserve one to be picked up at a later time.

“Online stock checking was a unique selling point for us. It got us ahead of the market very early on,” says Roberts. He also claims that this function has contributed to Argos selling more low-priced items through multichannel means than many rival retailers. Shoppers can use “check and reserve” to make sure that the exact item they want is available locally, which encourages them to begin their journeys online.

The nature of making a purchase from Argos is integral to the way it markets its shopping experience to prospective customers. As Roberts admitted in his address to delegates, Argos uses the website to create the engagement that its stores lack, since they are built around the process of customers choosing products from a catalogue and staff fetching them from a warehouse.

“Unlike going to the Apple Store, it is not a beautiful shopping experience. Nor are the staff experts in the products they sell we do not pretend to be a Currys or a Comet. That is what the website is for.”

Persuading consumers to do their research online also leads to further marketing avenues, such as presenting alternative products and accessories, and Roberts says Argos is carrying out email trials to see what kinds of products customers are likely to consider buying together.

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