By Trevor Legwinski


The growth of Amazon and stronger competition within the retail e-commerce sector overall is raising the bar for shopping experiences and customer expectations. These trends are putting pressure on small and mid market retailers to deliver highly individualized and engaging shopping experiences, similar to the ones that their much larger industry counterparts are delivering. A relevant shopping experience and a well merchandised site are integral in delivering a customer experience that engages customers and ultimately increase conversions.

The current retail climate presents a prime opportunity for all small and mid-size retailers, to re-evaluate their customer experience and merchandising strategies. There are several options available, including developing modern search capabilities in-house, sourcing functionality from e-commerce platform providers or looking elsewhere. Whatever route is taken, here are two key considerations.

NLP and Relevant Search

Today’s online shoppers have extremely high expectations and very low attention spans – for the first time, shorter than the goldfish’s nine second span (according to Microsoft, people now generally lose concentration after eight seconds, highlighting the effects of an increasingly digitalized lifestyle on the brain). This means online shoppers want to get into websites, find and buy those products and then get out of the site as quickly as possible. Most sites and apps have mere milliseconds to guide customers to what they’re looking for, effectively pulling them into the conversion funnel.

Basic out-of-the-box search engines and app store plugins do not address this reality. They may be great at keyword-based matching – producing a wide swath of results containing one or more words in a search term – but this can have the inadvertent effect of delivering many irrelevant results, overwhelming customers and driving them away.

Let’s say a shopper is looking for “brown leather boots.” The challenge with basic keyword-based searching is that this will produce any and all results which include one or more of these words. This could include “brown leather belt” or “black leather boots.” Today’s search capabilities must feature greater intelligence, including product awareness – the ability to decipher what is the key item being sought (boots), while eliminating or de-prioritizing items that aren’t boots (even though they may be brown or leather).

Additionally shoppers are starting to search in natural language form for products, just like they would through Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Google Home. This presents poor results, high bounce rates and frustrated customers as most eCommerce site search are not setup in this way. Search queries such as  “red dresses for warm weekends” or “water resistant bike jerseys for weekend rides” break down and deliver zero results.  To compete in today’s retail environment delivering a relevant site experience includes going beyond keywords to actually accommodating normal human conversation. This is critical to enabling the type of convenient, frictionless online interaction that drives conversions.

Online Merchandising for Profit

Helping new shoppers find relevant products is just the first step. Improving revenue and customer lifetime value also depends on strategically displaying products and prioritizing and “boosting” those with the highest conversion and revenue potential.

Retailers have varying goals depending on their retail category and stage which include top-line revenue, margin dollar and boosting revenue from specific brands.  It only makes sense, then, that e-commerce sites would want to display products in a more strategic, profit-focused manner, elevating those with the highest conversion and revenue potential. For example, let’s say a shopper searches for “red t-shirt, size adult medium.” The site may offer numerous red t-shirts in the designated size, but one tends to drive higher click-through rates, product views or purchases. Therefore, this is the product that should be ranked first, where it will have the highest visibility and deliver the most “bang for the buck.”

Having the flexibility to define specific merchandising goals and have algorithms dynamically display products not only increases profit but also saves time. Online merchandising is very time consuming, often taking one to two merchandisers 20 hours a week, dragging and dropping products, creating landing pages, cross-sells and upsells and re-merchandising based on sell through. This is highly inefficient, and is very costly as it comes at the expense of time that can be spent purchasing relevant products and delivering an engaging customer experience.

On-point search and strategic merchandising is essential for retailers in today’s retail environment. If a site doesn’t get it right, it is just a matter of seconds before visitors go to a competitor. Today, retailers who deliver shopping experiences that are highly relevant, convenient, profit-aware and individualized can start to level the playing field with their larger competitors, even Amazon. Retail is evolving at an ever-increasing pace and the time is now to leverage modern capabilities and approaches, in order to be more competitive and optimize site revenues and performance.

Trevor Legwinski is the Chief Strategy Officer of SearchSpring.