Online, It's All About Presentation

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One thing that’s obvious from looking through the stacks of catalogs on your parts counter is that we are in an industry with an insane number of products for our customers to choose from. While a small percentage of the hard-core enthusiasts know exactly what they want, most people need help figuring out exactly what they need.

In your store, you have your knowledgeable and helpful staff to aid lost customers. On your website, customers are on their own.

When it comes to e-commerce, good merchandising is the only way you can really help customers. For the purpose of this column I’m going to define merchandising to include three things:

1. Organization of the products (product or feature groups, category and taxonomy development, etc.)

2. Selection of products (what products go into those groupings or receive some other type of “feature” status)

3. Presentation of products

The first two elements go hand in hand. You can create a category on your site and call it something like “Maintenance Essentials” with products that anyone will find useful or necessary. One of those items may be chain lube. Let’s say you’ve got access to 10 different brands with three variations and three different sizes. That’s 90 different combinations! For one simple product!

For most people, this is overwhelming. Pick the best one or two options for these major product types and present them in a way that makes them easy to find. Communicate that these are the products you recommend — basically the same thing a good parts person would do in a face-to-face situation. The difference is that online, you need to do all of this before the customer ever comes onto your site.

There are a few different ways that you can do this. The first is to create multiple personas of model customers and do scenario planning on how they may interact with your site. Create three to five customer types (the hard-core enthusiast, the casual rider, the spouse or parent of a rider, the total newb, etc.) and then imagine a few different scenarios for each type (a major part broke and they need to find a replacement right now, they are new to riding and need everything but don’t know anything, they need to buy a birthday gift for their wife, son, friend who rides, and so on). Pretend to be these different types in various situations and try to organize your site so that there are obvious categories and product assortments that make each customer’s shopping experience as fulfilling as possible.

If your site has been live for a few years and you’ve been using a good analytics package, you’ll have data on how people use your site: where they go, what they buy, what they look at and don’t buy, etc. Use this data in your scenario planning.

Obviously, this is work. It’s much easier just to buy a site from a third-party vendor with all the catalogs pre-loaded, or build your own and dump a product feed into it, have a few general categories like helmets, exhausts, etc., and be done with it. That’s what 99 percent of the sites out there do, and that’s why 99 percent of the sites out there suck and don’t sell anything! Not only does merchandising make it easier to shop, it’s just about the strongest tool you have to differentiate your site from all the others.

This doesn’t mean that you should do away with the potentially millions of other products in your online catalogs. More often than not, you’ll want to present that overwhelming selection on a second layer behind your primary merchandising and allow customers to drill down to explore. Always have a “See all of our chain lube products” link next to your hand-picked selection. Of course, a robust and powerful search tool is your best bet to handle these kinds of shoppers.

Presentation: Many Options

Now that we’ve dealt with the product selection and organization ideas, let’s move on to the final piece: the presentation of those products.

There are so many cool technologies these days that can help you communicate the features, advantages and benefits of products. You’ve got the good ol’ custom written and compelling product description. You’ve got the ability to take your own product photos that show the product in use, various angles or views, mounting options and so on. You’ve got videos that you can post on YouTube and embed in the product page. You can post sound files of exhaust systems. The limit is really only your imagination and the amount of time you want to devote to it.

At the very top you can even go big-time and use rich-media technology like Adobe’s Scene7 (www.scene7.com) that can provide a huge range of presentation and interaction opportunities.

Remember that you are the expert in what you sell. Use that expertise to help customers figure out what they should be buying and communicate it through professional merchandising.

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews April 2010 issue.