Beyond the Buy Button: The Huge Additional Value of Retail Websites

Sometimes, I think we focus so intensely on the e-commerce sales of our sites that we miss the overwhelming additional value they bring to our businesses. Retail websites, particularly for multi-channel retailers, are more multi-dimensional than any other channel and any other brand vehicle. We fail to recognize the value of these sites beyond the buy button at our own peril.

Some are starting to see the additional value. During her presentation at the Retail Innovation and Marketing conference in San Francisco last week, Express Chief Marketing Officer Lisa Gavales talked about her epiphany surrounding Express.com’s value to the brand. It was Express.com’s traffic numbers that sparked the light bulb in her head. She realized that Express.com got as much traffic in a week as all of the Express stores combined. In other words, half of Express brand interactions were occurring on Express.com. Lisa immediately understood the marketing value of such high levels of engagements from Express’ customers. So much so, in fact, that she came to a conclusion she deemed controversial during her presentation — Express.com should be a marketing vehicle first and a direct sales channel second.

After the presentation, my good friend Scott Silverman, Shop.org’s Executive Director, asked me if I agreed with Lisa’s positioning of Express.com. I rambled on a bit before essentially saying “yes and no.” I’ll now take this space for what I hope is a more coherent answer.

I completely agree with Lisa that retail websites are much more valuable to the overall business than their direct sales indicate. Applying resources and strategic importance to sites based only on their percentage of sales is a mistake that could prove very costly in the long run. Customers use our sites for many reasons beyond direct transactions and our failure to highly prioritize those intentions is a disservice to our customers that will affect our bottom lines. But the value of our sites goes well beyond just marketing and direct sales and simply switching priorities is not enough. Furthermore, I worry that prioritizing marketing higher than everything else will lead to the types of conversion problems I previously discussed in my post “Conversion tip: Don’t block the product with window signs.

Let’s consider some of the many values a retail website provides for a multi-channel retailer:

  • Marketing vehicle
    As Lisa noted, the marketing value of our websites is immense. We are getting tons of traffic, and each engagement is an opportunity to enhance our brands. (Of course, if we’re not careful, the opposite is also true.) Websites are a highly efficient way to strengthen the Customer Engagement Cycle. Both online and offline marketing vehicles can direct customers to our sites to further enhance our messages. Our sites are also a great way to tell people about our stores on both a collective and an individual level.
  • Merchandising vehicle
    Customers come in droves to our sites to learn more about the products we sell, whether they intend to buy online, over the phone or in our stores. Our sites have to essentially be our best and most knowledgeable merchants. They have to lead customers to the right products for them and provide the right information for them to make a selection, regardless of the channel where the purchase takes place.  This is a huge, often untapped, opportunity for quality merchants to reach their customers and sell them the right products.
  • Customer research tool
    This is a bit of a double entendre. As mentioned above, our customers are certainly using our sites for their research. But we can also use our sites to learn more about our customers. There is a wealth of information to be had about what our customers are doing and what they desire. Not only can we see what they purchase, but we can also use web analytics to see what they look at. With tools like those provided by ForeSee Results (shameless plug), we can also know what they are thinking, what they are intending to do, and how they are perceiving our brands. All of this can be done fairly easily and inexpensively in ways that are either impossible or impossibly expensive in the physical world.
  • Customer relationship enabler
    We can continue to build relationships with our customers by applying what we’ve learned above to give them better experiences. The applied knowledge of our merchants combined with the long-lasting memory of our websites should allow us to constantly serve our customers better. As we focus on building those relationships with more personalized site experiences, more informed personal interactions via contact centers and in-store, and more relevant email and direct mail communications, we will build stronger loyalty with our customers.
  • Community builder
    Websites also give us ways to connect our customers with each other. Our brands can act as a central hub for like-minded customers to find each other and help each other find products that meet their needs or solve their problems. How great is that? We can make these connections both via our own sites and via social networks like Facebook. Either way, it’s another way for our brands to provide services for our customers. Our sites can also allow our brands to be more localized by providing additional vehicles for our stores to connect with their communities.
  • Sales driver — in-store and online
    And, of course, we can sell stuff. We can sell lots and lots of stuff online. Our sites are still not where they need to be for maximum usability, so we have plenty of opportunities to improve their ability to sell directly. But we also have lots and lots of opportunity to drive traffic into our stores. We can show inventory; we can let people buy or reserve online and pick up in-store; we can host coupons;  we can help people find a store close to them; we can provide reviews and recommendations to people standing in our stores (whether via kiosks or mobile phones). The possibilities are endless.

These site values are not mutually exclusive. Their value in combination is exponentially higher than any one individual value. Therefore, it’s critically important to consider our sites holistically when determining their place and priority in our strategic plans. We need to consider their combined value when we determine allocation of resources and organizational structure.

Too often, though, resources and executive attention are not apportioned to the site according to this additional value. And we often don’t even measure these additional value points (which might explain the lack of resources and executive attention). If our most important measures of our sites revolve solely around direct sales, we will continue to minimize the importance of all other values of our sites.

I believe the multichannel retailers with the brightest futures in this new decade will be those who fully embrace and leverage the multi-dimensional value of their websites.

What do you think? How is your site valued in your organization? What retailers do you think are most recognizing the additional value of their sites?


10 Comments

  • By Dan Martinez, March 8, 2010 @ 5:54 pm

    Kevin – even though I am no longer in Retail, I firmly believe that (retail or any company) websites provide more value than it’s intended purpose, such as selling merchandise. We run a site for our members to handle some self-service functions, yet we are really seeing there are more, often unexpected services, this website does (or can) provide. It is, in all intent, becoming a marketing vehicle for our membership – not what is was originally expected to be.

  • By Scott Silverman, March 8, 2010 @ 10:44 pm

    Kevin – I’m excited to see that this session at the Innovate event inspired you to take a deeper dive into this topic.

    This is a really tough question. Can a site be as compelling serving multiple purposes than single focused purpose? Conventional wisdom says that a single focused purpose is the way to go. At the same time, if that single purpose is to be a marketing vehicle, something just doesn’t feel right about that to me. At the very least, I would suggest that a retail Web site should first strive to generate sales as a way to understand how to connect with customers online. With the new skills and learnings that come with building a successful e-commerce business are established, I would expect that a retailer would be in a better position to determine if switching to a marketing focus is the best path forward. At the very least, a retailer will have more data to make a decision about attempting to serve multiple purposes. And, more data is always a good thing.

  • By Danny, March 9, 2010 @ 9:07 am

    Excellent post Kevin!
    I think you make a good point by saying,” This is a bit of a double entendre, refering to the use and purposes of the site.” This is often the case with retailer’s use of social media; in the most general sense. Slowly retailers are adopting some of these practices or at least realizing the inevitability of embracing their website or getting left behind in the dust.

  • By Kevin Ertell, March 9, 2010 @ 11:36 am

    Thanks Dan, Scott and Danny for your comments.

    Dan: It’s interesting to hear how your site is being valued differently by your customers than was the original intent of your organization. In the end, we’re all in business to serve our customers, so it’s good to know what they want so we can deliver it to them. I’m curious to know, now that you’ve found this different desire from your membership, how your organization is responding.

    Scott: Thanks again for you comment and the inspiration to write this post. I believe that sites not only can serve multiple purposes, but also that they must serve multiple purposes. The reality is customers are using our sites for wildly different reasons. Many of ForeSee Results’ retailer clients ask customers why they’ve come to the site on their current visit, and we see many different reasons. However, as I mentioned in the post, those reasons are not necessarily mutually exclusive. I believe we retailers need to understand all those reasons well in order to come up with the right mix of experience to best suit our customers’ needs.

    Maybe it’s like the process that goes into creating an excellent stew. (I love goofy analogies). We need to consider the right mix of ingredients to produce the best possible taste. Seriously, all the different purposes of a site do work together to create a great overall experience that can meet many needs. We cannot maximize that experience, though, if we don’t look at all the value points our sites provide and understand their effectiveness in our customers’ eyes.

    Danny: Good point about social media. Another value point there is the ability to learn more about customers. And in many cases, these are the best customers for the brand.

  • By Andy (Ansar) Syed, March 10, 2010 @ 12:08 am

    Kevin, again a nice post from you. I agree with you 100% that sole purpose website can’t be sales. In reality, most of the people visit websites to understand the products company offers, their online price compared to ohers, research etc.. Understanding this different angle of customers is crucial to enhance the customer experience for purposes beyond sales to build long term relationship. I think Website is the only channel that provides perfect way to understand what customer is doing through web analytics compared to brick and mortar. The output of the web analytics should be used for functions beyond increasing sales…

  • By Stephen Cobb, March 10, 2010 @ 5:35 pm

    Thanks for taking your initial thoughts on this topic to the next level (I’m sorry I missed the session). Your overall point is well taken, although I can’t decide if it’s the multi-channel retailers or the web pure plays that are better placed to attain this holistic perspective.

    One factor I would throw into the mix is mobile, where we are seeing some interesting strategies emerge. A retailer with brick-and-mortar stores could decide, based on the web site visitor’s location, that the best use of that visit is to drive traffic to a nearby physical store rather than try to close a sale through the mobile device.

    Making the right “call” obviously requires a lot of testing and analysis but also an appreciation of the ideas you’ve so helpfully outlined here.

  • By John Eckman, March 19, 2010 @ 1:55 pm

    Kevin – the link to “Customer Engagement Cycle” in the first bullet point is off – has “/retail-shaken-not-stirred/2010/” in it twice.

    Just FYI and for others as it took me a minute to locate:
    http://www.retailshakennotstirred.com/retail-shaken-not-stirred/2010/01/the-missing-link-in-the-customer-engagement-cycle.html

  • By Kevin Ertell, July 22, 2010 @ 10:18 am

    Thanks a lot John. I somehow missed your comment when you left it and only just now saw it. I’ve fixed the link in the post, and I really appreciate you notifying me and dropping in the correct link.

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