Merchandising at Scale: Retail’s Chicken Little

The sky is not falling, and retail is far from dead.

In fact, according to the National Retail Federation, year-over-year retail sales have grown every month since November 2009, and for every company closing a physical store in 2017, another 2.7 companies are opening them.
So while it may seem like the sky is falling in retail, it’s really just changing in earth-shattering ways to keep up with the lightening-speed changes in consumer shopping behaviors and expectations brought on by technology.
Technology, then, is a double-edged sword. It is both the challenge and the solution to retail’s current problem: how to meet consumer and market demands with a shopping experience that is as elegantly simple as the systems behind it are complex.
It is about leveraging technology to collect, manage, and share product content to get products to market better, faster, cheaper, and at scale.
In an always on, always connected, omnichannel society, brands and retailers alike are being forced to address how to drive purchase decisions in new and ever-expanding ways, how to create a competitive edge, and how to create and deliver high-quality product content. This high demand for change can certainly be jarring, especially for those who haven’t quite honed their digital commerce strategy. So how are brands and retailers supposed to take advantage of these opportunities? How can they merchandise at the scale necessary to get and stay competitive?

What does “merchandising at scale” really mean?

Merchandising at scale is more than just creating a digital product content strategy. It involves the ability to collect, manage, and share data and content at each step of the customer buying journey, from discovery to fulfillment to post-purchase support. It involves adjusting the processes that push your product to market to be more efficient, while also adjusting your product content strategy to gain and keep customer attention and brand loyalty.
When your brand has a strategy for distributing product content and for expediting your supply chain and fulfillment processes, you gain a competitive edge. Whether you’re adding more product attributes to your online items, or making sure your customer service and fulfillment centers are equipped to handle a large amount of traffic, you’re learning to merchandise at scale for the digital age.
To determine how merchandising at scale can give your brand an edge in the age of the customer, think about how you can reach your customers at each touchpoint along the buyer’s journey:
1. Discover Stage
Brick and mortar sales are still a big piece of the pie, but with digital influence over that in-store purchase increasing in proportion to increasing online sales. Think With Google says 87 percent of consumers research a product they plan to buy in-store before ever entering the store; they also say 72 percent of shoppers have gone to a store to check out a product with plans to purchase online. The lines between digital and physical retail are blurring with the increase of digital influence. So how do you position your brand online to attract customers and build loyalty across channels?
Start by asking yourself the right questions; start with your SEO product copy, your product taxonomies, and hierarchies, and where your products are published after being outfitted with this information. Is your product content correct and as complete as possible? Do you have an active social media presence so you can advertise products and deals to your followers?
Where are your products sold online? If you aren’t taking advantage of third-party retailers with large customer bases and outstanding fulfillment and customer service programs (like Amazon) you’re missing out. Focus on the strategic sprawl of your content, and be sure it’s accurate and attractive when your customers find it.
2. Explore Stage
How do your customers learn more about your products once they find them? What differentiates your product simulations from your competitors? This step covers everything from side-by-side product and price comparisons to explainer videos, to more immersive methods of product simulation available to retailers in the digital age.
Imagine going to buy a new car from the dealership. Maybe you’re a new parent looking for top-of-the-line safety features, or maybe you’re an empty-nester craving a two-door, convertible experience. A lot of dealerships just have eye-catching posters that detail every selling point available for a car, but what if the sales rep comes out with a VR headset, and suddenly you’re cruising down a scenic mountainside in a convertible (or safe sedan)? Sign me up.
Now imagine you’re on on a mobile phone, and you’re able to use AR to visualize a new chair in your living room through your phone’s camera. You can preview how a new piece would fit into your living room, taking the guesswork out of investing in new furniture. These rich customer experiences delight customers and make them seek out your product content. You can market to a much larger scale of people, whether they’re seeking an exciting customer experience in-store or in their living room.
3. Buy Stage
One way to approach the Buy stage from a merchandising at scale perspective would be to make your supply chain more efficient. If you pay close attention to your logistics data, you can make the most of the space available to your products – in shipping trucks, in bulk boxes, on the shelves themselves. Your products are stocked faster through a more efficient process, making them available to be sold. Fulfillment options also play an important part in consumer buying choices. Sixty-nine percent of people say that it is important that a retailer offers multiple ways to buy a product, like buying online or picking an item up in-store.
Aside from logistics, high-quality product content (marketing copy, complete attributes, manufacturer descriptions) increases conversion rates from digital and physical shelves. Seventy-nine percent of shoppers look for information on a product on their mobile device while inside the store. In another testament to the power of product content, Google reports that 80 percent of smartphone shoppers buying consumer electronics have changed their mind about which retailer or brand to buy from after searching on Google. It’s ultimately up to your product content to differentiate your products from the competition, in a pool that grows daily in the digital age.
4. Use Stage
Is your product intuitive? And if it isn’t, do you have clearly outlined instructions for your customers to get the most out of using your product?
As for customer-generated feedback, this content becomes just as crucial as having quality product content to steer the customer prior to the purchase. Customer feedback and reviews are usually listed right below the product attributes in a product listing, and customers are more likely to listen to user-generated feedback than marketing copy. In fact, 72 percent of consumers say positive reviews make them trust businesses more, and 63 percent of customers are more likely to make a purchase from a site which has user reviews. If the rest of your strategy has been setup correctly (smooth support and fulfillment systems, accurate product content), your customers can be your best brand advocates.
5. Ask Stage
The post-purchase phase is often overlooked, to the detriment of brands’ bottom lines. Managing customer relations after they checkout is one of the most effective ways to build customer loyalty, and that includes your fulfillment strategy. This information could come to them in the form of product and marketing copy listed on your chosen retail platform, FAQs, customer service for your specific product, or less vetted/reliable sources. Youtube has opened a can of worms in the form of unsolicited product feedback and tutorials, meaning anyone can have any opinion of your product in a very public forum. For example, more than 13 million hours of home furnishing Youtube videos were watched in 2016.
The bright side? An enabled customer service and support department will keep customer confusion down, and positive reviews up. The product journey doesn’t end when the customer purchases your product; it ends after your customer experiences success with your product and shares their experience with others. When your customer raises their hand with a product question, always be ready to lend an ear or a hand.
6. Engage Stage
Pretend the sale process is like a golf swing. Your product content is all teed up, you swing and make a sale, but the way you follow through with your swing is just as important how you make an impact. If you get sloppy with your follow through, it can spoil the whole swing.
Apply the same logic to your sale. After a customer purchases your product, how do you follow up with your customers? To take advantage of this step of the buyer’s journey, make sure you provide attentive customer support and an open forum for user discussion in your digital strategy. If brand ambassadors interact with your product and post on a third-party channel, show them support or rewards. With the rise of influencer marketing, customers are seeking out customer reviews, and are ready to buy based on trends. Third-party websites influence customer reviews and word of mouth, which will definitely have an impact on your conversion rate.
As we collectively enter a new phase of life for the retail industry, don’t get thrown off by fear mongers who are insistent on the idea of a retail apocalypse. The sky is not falling. Every industry experiences periods of flux and growth and retail is no exception. The ability to grow and thrive in an ever-evolving, ever-advancing omnichannel reality will depend on every brand and retailer’s ability to merchandise at scale – however large or small.

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