About a year ago, the Harvard Business Review interviewed Rakuten chief executive (CEO) Hiroshi Mikitani to discuss what it takes to “humanize” e-commerce. It’s a fascinating read, but one idea really stuck with me: At one point in the interview, Mikitani challenged other e-commerce giants like Amazon, calling them out as “hyper-efficient supermarkets with standardized offerings.”
The fact that this sounds like high praise indicates just how skewed the current perspective is. E-commerce has undoubtedly been a positive game-changer for retailers and manufacturers, but it comes with some major negative side effects that we tend to miss. Sure, I can look up Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch on Amazon, decide I want it, and have a copy shipped to me in a couple days, but something significant is lost in the process. No matter how convenient online shopping gets, it currently can’t match the experience of walking into a bookstore, ruffling through a used book, and smelling the wonderful scent of a dusty page.
In Icreon’s recent partnership with bath and body product retailer Sabon, we were confronted with this problem head-on: In a physical store, you can show people how good your soap smells, but you have to find other ways to fill that void when the store is online. This is where Mikitani’s insight comes into play, and where e-commerce sites really need to change things up. But even if you’re not an online giant like Rakuten, here are five ways you can enrich your online shopping experience.
1. Appeal to the Senses With Words and Images
When you sell soaps and lotions and oils, you have to appeal to your customers’ senses. In a physical space, this is easy. You let them smell the soap, you let them try out the lotion. But on the Web, you have to compensate by stimulating different senses.
Sabon took this to heart by placing luxurious, high-resolution photos all over their site. You might not be able to smell that bar of Dulce de Leche soap from the confines of your computer room, but you can make out the intricate details of its texture, and you can see how it glistens to the point where it almost looks good enough to eat.
Let your users zoom in on a product so they feel like they’re interacting with it. Write captivating, descriptive flavor text. You can’t show off your product directly, but there’s no reason to deny customers the next best thing.
2. In the Absence of People, Offer a Guided Store Experience
The Internet has a reputation for degrading customer service, so retailers have to make efforts to adjust. Wherever an employee would interact with a customer in a physical store, you have to make sure your e-commerce site is stepping in to fill that void.
Even though Sabon’s website doesn’t support face-to-face employee interaction in real-time, the homepage guides users through the experience in the same way a person might. It informs them of what’s popular, it cues them in on sales, and it tells them where to find everything in the store. Sabon knows that their customers want products that are compatible with their complexion, so they categorize products by “Skin Type.”
Think about what your customers are looking for when they go into your shop, and address those wants directly in your Web design.
3. Complement the Experience With Enticing Promos
The true challenge for the e-commerce site is to close the gap between in-store and online customer experience. While we’ve discussed a few ways to try and match the physical experience, you have to use extra tools to give your online offering some extra appeal.
To make up for what’s lost in the online customer experience, Sabon’s site uses promotions and calls to action that give customers a sense of added value. They can’t see the products in-person, but they can get it shipped for free, and they even offer gift-wrapping to bump up the experience to that next rung on the ladder.
4. Envision Your Site as a Living Space
When a guest walks into a Sabon storefront, they’re greeted by an ivory wash basin nestled prominently at the store’s center. They’re encouraged to try out the myriad soaps. The scents of lavender, vanilla, and patchouli add a breezy lightness to the air around them.
Barring the sudden development of tactile and olfactory technologies that don’t yet exist, you simply can’t offer this experience to someone sitting at their computer. Still, e-commerce sites should seek to emulate their brick-and-mortar counterparts with quality site design.
5. Don’t Short-Sell Your Brick-and-Mortar Experience
The interplay between online store and brick-and-mortar experience is a delicate tightrope, and every business has to walk it in their own way. For Sabon, the goal was to provide as delightful an e-commerce experience as possible, while still encouraging visitors to check out the physical products for themselves.
All too often, we see competitors skimp on this step by making store listings feel like cookie-cutter franchise pages. We gave customers a sense of direction and an actionable first step by placing all of the Sabon store locations within the Google Maps API. You’d be surprised, but by simply providing unique images for each location and directions on how to get there, you can make each store feel like a distinct place with an identity of its own.
With e-commerce, it’s easy to get lost in a sea of ritualistic “best practices.” But it’s important to remember that while the Internet is a bastion of customer convenience, it demands a lot more effort from retailers who want to give customers a profound and memorable experience.
When we get back to the roots of online shopping in the physical space, it’s easy to find that there are some gaping holes in the current approach. Instead of designing e-commerce for its own sake, try looking to brick-and-mortar for inspiration. By doing away with boring, nondescript product grids, you can build a cohesive, even artisanal experience that faithfully brings your product’s physical appeal into the online space.
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