Sales, Sales, Sales

Recently I went to the Web sites of some major athletic brands to do a little shopping. I didn’t actually intend to buy online — I was just browsing so I could narrow down which store to visit so I could try things on. Midway through my scouring a funny thing happened — I found myself instinctively skipping the “lifestyle” parts of the sites and heading straight to the e-commerce areas because I knew this way I could search, sort and access the information faster.

What made me even question this behavior was the generic, unpleasant experiences I was having in the e-commerce stores. It snapped me out of my browsing and got me thinking.

Brands and their agencies spend all their money and creative efforts on interesting user experiences for the “lifestyle” sections of their sites, but their e-commerce stores are almost an afterthought. Most such experiences are dull, have small thumbnails and essentially waste an opportunity to connect with consumers while their credit cards are in their hands.

There’s a pretty solid reason for this. E-commerce has, for the most part, been a separate silo of the industry from the creative/marketing side of digital. It’s the domain of a development shop that’s reselling a shopping-cart product to as many folks as possible. Not a terrible idea since you get some reliability and a good price, and it is a specialized skill. A client will say, “It’s OK, we’ll have a different group do the e-commerce and people can just click through.”

I’ve been guilty of saying we don’t do e-commerce, or sending clients to “e-commerce vendors” for that part of the job. It’s been commoditized. In fact, it’s been commoditized so much that it has turned a huge part of the Internet into a bit of a wasteland. Years later, the Internet is basically full of uninspiring shopping experiences that have consumers click through from the cool site.

If big parts of the user experience are unappealing, it naturally puts a bigger onus on the marketing to do more work pre-selling customers on a brand or product to counteract the huge drop-offs at point of sale. If the e-commerce operation has a poor response rate because it’s a bad experience, I wonder how much more effective the ad campaign must be to overcome that?

There are some bright spots on the horizon. If you look at Gilt, Groupon, Woot or FreshDirect, you’ll see they’re creating new ways of shopping, taking advantage of the Internet in ways that are exciting, easy or useful. So much
so that they’re becoming “user-experience brands” and leaving the brands that make and sell their own products even further in the dust.

There’s a tremendous opportunity to start reinventing the way a brand does sales online by taking advantage of the lack of innovation in the space and creating shopping experiences that are compelling enough to talk about.

I think about all the reasons I end up buying from one place or another online. I end up on Amazon a lot because it’s so easy. I never have fun buying from there and the discovery tools are so obviously curated by a robot that the recommendations are kind of a joke. Oh, you bought a bicycle horn? Let’s assume you must also want seven other bicycle horns!

If we stopped having the church-and-state attitude and started trying to make the sales experience the hero, make it adventurous, make it the most interesting part of an online world, it would attract an audience like the best pieces of marketing — and close the deal.

The tricky part is that, well, it’s tricky. It took years to get us here and some of the “boring” conventions of e-commerce do make sense from a usability point of view. But, it’s also way easier to do just about anything on the Internet than it was five or 10 years ago, so some of the technologies that were inscrutable are now at least fairly scrutable.

There’s also the fact that clients are acquainted with e-commerce being kind of a nightmare — and they’re not wrong. Over the years it has been difficult and taken lots of fussing to do even basic e-commerce in a reliable way. So the sales experience hasn’t always been a hotbed of
experimentation. This is partly because it’s been hard in general, and also partly because brands are used to e-commerce vendors trying to sell them products vs. great brand experiences. Also, frequently the responsibility for e-commerce is not even under the purview of the marketing department!

The great news, though, is we’re in the midst of some rapid and exciting changes in how people shop and talk about shopping. I think a lot of brands are ready to get excited about awesome shopping experiences. It’s certainly an area where there is plenty of opportunity for experimentation.

Benjamin Palmer is co-founder and CEO of The Barbarian Group. He can be reached at benjamin@barbariangroup.com.