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?