Ecommerce Merchandising 101: The Ultimate Condensed Playbook
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Picture the inside of a plush department store. Above you, sparkling full-gamut LED lights illuminating the scene. To your left, spotless shelves hold row upon row of perfectly folded hotel-quality towels; to your right, you see a well-stocked luxury skincare display, with every product pulled forward in line with the next.
Beautiful, isn’t it? You can almost smell the vanilla-scented fixture polish.
As an ecommerce retailer, you need to create that type of ambiance online via ecommerce merchandising. Your sales depend on so much more than SEO; you have to make your products real before your customers ever touch them. That’s digital artistry.
Need an example? Here’s Burrow’s homepage. Lifestyle images help consumers put themselves in the picture.
Scroll down a bit, and each of the products in the hero image appear as thumbnail links. Smart move, Burrow.
Let’s take a look at Camelbak’s landing page, too. Here, happy children who love their colorful water bottles emerge as the first image in a giant hero slider. Adorable.
Helpful links to various other Camelbak products appear a little further down the page.
You need a smart, professional desktop site — but that won’t be enough. Successful online stores travel well. During the first quarter of 2019, nearly 50% of all ecommerce transactions happened on smartphones. Customers who began browsing products on their laptops over breakfast kept shopping on their mobile devices, commuting to work as passengers, of course.
Huge online retailers, like Amazon and eBay, leverage ecommerce merchandising strategies across all platforms. You can copy them — and we’ll show you how. Read on to learn how to use ecommerce merchandising techniques to convert your visitors into repeat customers.
A Brief History of Ecommerce
Ecommerce has come a long, long way since its invention in the 1960s.
Wait — the 1960s?
Yes indeed. Take all the time you need to let that sink in. If ecommerce were a human being, it would probably have Googled “benefits of early retirement” at least once by now. Unlike the rest of us, however, ecommerce is aging backwards like Benjamin Button. Remember Videotex?
There weren’t many merchandising strategy options in the early days of ecommerce. Designed for display on a television screen, Videotex broadcast words and rudimentary graphics in garish rainbow shades. Photographs weren’t an option, even later on. Nevertheless, people all over the world ordered all sorts of things, from mundane grocery items to package holidays, via Videotex.
Like the Ugly Duckling of technology, ecommerce blossomed into a swan when it grew up. Online retail sales have bitten off a progressively larger market share every year since the year 2000. In 2018, nearly 10% of all retail sales happened on the internet — up from a mere 0.9% at the turn of the century.
In 2017, a CouponFollow survey found that 47% of people aged 22 to 37 did most of their shopping online. When they conducted the same study in 2019, 60% of millennials favored ecommerce businesses over brick-and-mortar stores, indicating a 13% consumer shift over just two years.
By itself, that increase is exciting. When you combine it with the paradigm shift in shopping habits caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, there can only be one conclusion: If you’ve been waiting to make a move into ecommerce, now’s the time to get online.
What is Modern Ecommerce Merchandising?
In a nutshell, ecommerce merchandising is a blend of retail-centric science and art, and its sole goal is to boost sales. Online merchandising and search engine optimization work in tandem and sometimes overlap, but they’re not the same thing. Your site is a retail space on Internet Lane in the middle of the night: SEO techniques switch on the lights so that people can see your business. When visitors enter your store, ecommerce merchandising tactics turn them into paying customers.
Why Ecommerce Merchandising Matters
Effective SEO campaigns help landing pages rank highly on search engines, like Google. Optimized snippets make promises about products and services, while strategically placed links in articles or blog posts about consumer problems or products funnel visitors to sites.
If SEO best practices drive consumers to online stores, ecommerce merchandising strategies take over when people arrive. Top-notch visual merchandising drives revenue and increases your average order value (AOV) — and you’ll also build up a repeat customer base. Both of those factors positively influence business growth.
Differences Between Traditional Merchandising and Ecommerce Merchandising
On the face of it, traditional and ecommerce merchandising are completely different from one another. Traditional stores are buildings made of brick and mortar; ecommerce stores are made of code and appear only on a screen. Traditional stores usually contain shelves full of products; ecommerce stores have pages full of items in list or grid form. Traditional stores hang posters in windows; ecommerce stores put banners at the top of microsites.
If you dig a little deeper, though, you’ll find that ecommerce merchandising strategies closely emulate traditional merchandising tactics.
1. Store layout.
Both traditional retailers and ecommerce retailers follow a set of best practices when they design their store layouts. Both offline and online, store layouts have to encourage maximum sales while remaining accessible.
Brick and mortar
Ever felt a sense of deja vu when you walk into a big box store? There’s a reason for that. Successful traditional retailers, like Costco, Walmart, and Walgreens, go back to the same set of time-tested floor plans whenever they build or refit stores. Companies with enough financial clout erect buildings based on existing store layout maps, while smaller firms modify their floor plans to fit inside extant premises.
When they standardize stores, companies create a feeling of familiarity. Returning customers instantly feel at home and use visual cues to find the products they’re looking for — even if layouts are a little different from location to location. End caps, clip strips, and seasonal displays highlight special offers and specific brands, while distinct departments and well-organized aisles contain a range of everyday items.
Cleverly planned and expertly implemented traditional floor plans guide customers through stores without frustrating them, creating opportunities for impulse purchases along the way.
Online businesses don’t use physical floor plans, but they do organize sites into departments and sub-departments. Banners and pop-up windows replace end caps and clip strips, highlighting special offers and seasonal items. Because they’re not bound by the physical limits of buildings, ecommerce retailers have a lot of freedom when they design their sites. That being said, customers expect to encounter reasonably predictable ecommerce layouts: intuitive sites tend to create the greatest number of conversions.
In general, ecommerce retailers publish one main site per country; sometimes, they produce additional minisites to highlight new products, mega deals, and sales. By standardizing their site layouts, ecommerce retailers achieve the same comforting sense of familiarity as brick-and-mortar stores with similar floor plans in multiple stores.
Mega menus — like this one on the Jeep People homepage — make navigation easier.
Stellar branding is an essential part of business success, both online and offline. Long-standing companies with market dominance almost invariably have iconic logos. Take the word “Pepsi” off the Pepsi logo, and people still recognize the logo; similar things happen with the Nike Swoosh, McDonald’s’ Golden Arches, and other corporate trademarks.
Brick and mortar
Corporate branding is a holistic thing. Companies usually start with a logo, which they use as the basis for all their subsequent visual branding decisions. Great logos have three things in common:
- They’re minimalist.
- They’re distinctive.
- They scale well.
Companies with brick-and-mortar stores have to spend a lot of money on branding. Large physical items are usually top of the list, including exterior store signage, interior and fixture signage, and vehicle decals. Many retailers extend their branding to include uniforms, banners, posters, till receipts, letterheads, flyers, and various promotional products.
What’s it all for? Well, successful branding promotes consumer awareness. When you apply your memorable logo to a desirable product, you trigger a connection in consumers’ minds. Later on, those consumers see your logo and feel compelled to buy the product they associate with it. Branding begins with a logo, but it ends with an emotional connection.
Profitable ecommerce retailers often spend less on signs and more on brand narrative. What’s brand narrative? It’s the story you tell about your business — it’s your company mythos. You don’t have a physical store, so you need to recreate the ambiance of a physical store in your customer’s mind. Emblematic logos, rich corporate colors, standardized web fonts, compelling imagery, sleek banners, and smooth transitions work together to create a branding sensation.
Physical items wrap a ribbon around your brand. When customers open the logo-stamped boxes, you send them and see your carefully packaged products nestling inside, their positive experiences complete your branding narrative.
Check out Cutter and Buck’s branding: a simple, instantly recognizable logo on the top left, coupled with a coordinating white and dark blue theme. Timeless.
3. Product grouping.
Have you ever gone to the store for milk and come out with more than you bargained for? Maybe you saw french fried onions, beans, and cream of mushroom soup on an endcap and thought, “Oh! I’ll make green bean casserole tonight!” Perhaps you came across a cardboard display full of personal care items and went down a rabbit hole. Either way, you probably fell for product grouping.
Brick and mortar
Product grouping is an essential part of brick-and-mortar retailing. Sometimes it’s obvious — the green bean casserole end cap is one example. Hairstyling tools, extra-hold mousse, and bobby pins work well together; nail polish and emery boards are another classic combo. Razors, refills, and shaving cream almost always live next to each other.
Product grouping isn’t limited to end caps. The beer-and-diapers data mining story may be an urban myth, but certain products complement each other on the shelf. Burgers and fries. Strawberries and cream. Digital cameras and memory cards. A shirt and slacks. Speaking of pants — the children’s clothing and women’s clothing sections sit right next to each other for a reason.
In the grocery department, typical lost leaders, like milk, boost orange juice and bread sales. Over in electronics, laptops promote headphone sales and smartphones never leave without a case. Visual merchandisers plan product groups and cross-selling techniques to help increase revenue across the whole store.
Unbound by the physical constraints of concrete and steel, ecommerce stores can innovate when grouping products. Given limited space, physical shops place products on a single end cap — they have limited real estate in-store, so they have to optimize each display. Online, retailers can put products in multiple groups simply by associating tags. One particular type of face cream, for example, might appear in a makeup group, a spa-themed group, and a seasonal gift group.
You can tinker with groups in your shop as much as you like. Some ecommerce retailers put bestselling items together and give the group an enticing title: kitchen classics, must-have holiday accessories, super-smart technology essentials, etcetera. Groups work exceptionally well on high-traffic pages, and some e-tailers promote them via email as well.
Here, Bliss adds an extra kick to a cleanser and moisturizer group with prominent free shipping and samples offer.
Personalization isn’t a new phenomenon — it’s been around as long as brick and mortar stores. Retailers who know their customers individually and familiarize themselves with their consumer bases do better on the high street. When customers feel appreciated, they develop brand loyalty and come back time and again.
Brick and mortar
In brick-and-mortar retail stores, personalized shopping experiences begin when business owners build relationships with customers.
“Good morning, Mrs. Jones. How’s your son? Would you like some more of that fudge you bought last week?”
Statements like that indicate regard. When we remember people and take an interest in them, they feel valued. We’re glad to see Mrs. Jones, we hold her son in the same high esteem, and we remember what she bought last week: we care about her. Customers like Mrs. Jones invariably visit retailers who value her business more than retailers who ignore her.
The more we know about Mrs. Jones, the more we can personalize her shopping experience. Savvy stores encourage customers to sign up for loyalty cards and usually retain their email addresses in the process. When customers use their cards, those businesses track purchases; later, they send personalized emails highlighting specific products with custom coupon codes attached.
E-tailers don’t usually come face-to-face with their customers, but they can still offer personalized shopping experiences. On the most basic level, ecommerce retailers customize product suggestions based on their customers’ shopping habits. Bought a sweater? Well, here’s an email with 10% off a second sweater.
Savvy online retailers begin offering personalized recommendations for potential customers before they get to the checkout. People who sign up for accounts with ecommerce stores before they buy (lured in with the promise of a discount or free shipping) make it much easier for companies to track their preferences. Ecommerce stores with built-in dynamic algorithms display eerily prescient recommendations for returning customers.
Revelry’s More to Love slider shows a selection of dresses based on a visitor’s previous click history.
Elements of Ecommerce Merchandising
Profitable businesses use a mixture of ecommerce merchandising tactics to achieve results online. Their websites are attractive, easy to navigate, and constructed in a familiar way so that consumers know how to find products. Well-executed homepage, product page, and category merchandising techniques increase AOV and enhance consumer loyalty. Let’s take a closer look.
1. Homepage merchandising.
Homepages aren’t always where consumers start their journeys, but they are convenient central hubs. As such, they have to look good. Most modern ecommerce sites use a similar template: at the top, prominent banner images (also known as hero images) introduce visitors to key products; further down, category images and product images provide portals into the core of the site.
One of the most common features on a homepage is a free shipping banner. Some companies provide free shipping on all orders, while others offer free shipping on orders over $20, $50, or $100. Some companies also offer free returns. Because shipping costs represent an unknown, free shipping offers to remove one of the barriers to purchase — bingo, increased conversion rates.
Another familiar homepage element is the hero slider. Instead of a static hero image, you get a slideshow of featured items, each hyperlinked to a product page. Companies often use their hero sliders to highlight special offers and seasonal sale items.
Scroll down a little more and you’ll find individual products and categories on most ecommerce homepages. Remember personalization? This is usually where e-tailers begin to custom curate their customers’ experiences. Advanced personalization platforms use machine learning and AI to track customer data points, giving each user a tailor-made shopping adventure.
2. Product pages.
Stellar product pages bring items to life. Packed with useful information and compelling images, they make it easier for customers to say yes than no. Product pages are where customers decide if the coffee maker or Hawaiian shirt or oversized travel mug they’re looking at is the one. This is the moment conversion happens: the instant that visitors become customers.
Successful online retailers use photographs to make products tangible. Multiple images taken from different angles compensate for the fact that shoppers can’t hold products before purchase. Many ecommerce stores showcase items with high-resolution images and include a zoom feature to encourage consumer scrutiny. Another option is something like WebRotate 360, which converts a series of product photographs into an interactive rotating image.
Moving images are beneficial too. Electronics retailers use videos to demonstrate games, while clothing merchants use short clips to show off dresses and suits.
3. Category-based merchandising.
Category pages act like aisles in stores. They contain related products, making it easier for consumers to compare and contrast items. Many ecommerce stores have thousands of items in multi-level category pages: electronics, televisions, smart TVs.
Well-organized category pages have filters and layers to streamline products. These usually live on the left of the page and sometimes at the top of the page. Users apply radio buttons or tick boxes to highlight the features they want to examine, and the site displays products that fit the bill.
Companies generally use conventional layouts on their category pages. Customers expect to see product snapshots (thumbnails, names, and prices) in neat rows, and they look for menus in obvious places. Confuse them at your peril.
7 Ecommerce Merchandising Strategies to Increase Sales
Companies grow when they employ the right ecommerce merchandising strategies. Let’s look at the top seven tactics you can use to take your company up a gear.
1. Mobile responsive and optimized.
The days of a single ecommerce website are gone; the time of omnichannel marketing has come. Consumers expect a seamless ecommerce experience across a range of devices. They want to place items in carts on regular websites and check out using their smartphones later on.
Ecommerce companies with apps have an edge in the omnichannel world. If your business doesn’t have an app, make sure that your site is responsive and optimized for smartphones and tablets as well as desktop computers and laptops.
Here’s Burrow’s homepage again — only this time, you’re looking at the smartphone version.
2. Product discovery should be easy.
To buy the right products, shoppers have to be able to find them. You can use the search function on your site to help them do this. To make items easy to find, ensure that they carry appropriate tags: mens leather shoes, blue wallet, pink shag carpet. If your search tool has a visual merchandising option, use it to display thumbnails rather than a list of products.
Consumers also need to be able to find the newest products on your site. To help them, change the photographs in your hero slider frequently and feature new items at the top of category pages.
Here’s the cheese section at Di Bruno Bros. Notice the helpful filters at the top of the page, which make it much easier to find your favorite savory snack.
3. Get personal with recommendations.
Personalized recommendations increase AOV, boost impulse sales, and help customers find what they need. Data is the driving force behind personalization. You can examine information about your site, including pathway trends and conversions, using Google Analytics. You’ll gain more insight into existing customers when you analyze their accounts. You can also use targeted ads on Google and Facebook to drive particular consumers toward specific areas of your site.
Session recording apps and heatmap plugins track visitor engagement on your site, making it easier to identify popular areas and roadblocks. You can use feedback from these apps to create personalized product recommendations and put segmented merchandising campaigns in optimal places.
Want an example? Scroll down The Mountain’s homepage and you come to a section of recommended T-shirts.
4. Make your product descriptions great.
Great product descriptions are vital. Visitors click on product thumbnails to find out more about those items. Put yourself in a potential customer’s shoes: what would you want to know? Begin with a compelling one-sentence introduction to the product and then go into detail about its main features. Bullets help highlight perks.
Accuracy builds trust, so correct spelling and grammar are vital. Shorter paragraphs work better than longer, wordier paragraphs because they’re easier to read. Stay away from passive voice (“the coffee is made with the coffee maker” becomes “make coffee with this coffee maker”). If in doubt, use a Flesch reading ease or Flesch-Kincaid grade level analysis tool to explore your text. Aim for a Flesch reading ease score of 60 to 70, or a Flesch-Kincaid score of 8 to 10.
Lastly, upload bright, clear photographs and product diagrams, and use them to illustrate each product page. Words are important, but people respond to pictures in a visceral way. They need to be able to imagine the product in front of them.
Need inspiration? Take a look at Larq. Notice the purity and simplicity of this product description — a bit like the water in the bottle itself.
5. Keep it simple.
When people go shopping, they want to have fun. They don’t want to be bored, and they want to find products quickly and easily. To make them happy, use analytics data to pinpoint popular products and display them prominently on your site. Carousel sliders under product descriptions add interest and encourage add-on sales.
Sometimes it’s just easier to talk to someone. Live chat boxes answer questions quickly and help visitors find their desired products. Many advanced live chat plugins actually approach visitors first and base their initial messages on user action analyses. Clever, huh?
Solo Stove has a floating help button on the bottom right of every page. Tap on it and you get a simple web form, like this.
6. Focus on telling a story.
Remember branding? Well, that branding story has to continue through every part of your site. The voice you use to describe your business must permeate through each product description you write. Consistency creates authenticity; trustworthy companies acquire new customers and retain existing consumers.
Remember the last time you read a great story? The last time you felt as if you were really there — really part of the dialog? That’s what you need to aim for here. You want your brand story to become entwined with your customer’s personal account. Consumers create tapestries with threads they find in their daily lives: help them make your brand part of that woven reality.
Bon Bon Bon is a fun, tasty brand. Here’s an example of its trademark tongue-in-cheek style: lighthearted imagery and playful text on the company’s Swag page.
7. Highlight user-generated content.
According to a recent study by the Nielsen Consumer Trust Index, consumers trust each other more than they trust ecommerce merchants. If 92% of visitors look at reviews before buying, then it makes sense to leverage user-generated content to raise brand awareness, promote social proof, and establish credibility.
You can establish user engagement with platforms like Facebook, TrustPilot, and Instagram. Plugins stream social media and review platform content to your site, enhancing your SEO in the process. You sell high-quality products and offer excellent customer service: user-generated content can help you raise brand awareness and build trust for free.
Hyphen puts user-generated content on its homepage. Glowing reviews make each product more credible.
Ecommerce merchandising and omnichannel marketing make life easier. Customers browse desktop sites in their kitchens over morning coffee and continue reading via smartphone as they travel to work on the train. If you play your cards right, they’ll place an order via tablet at lunchtime.
Many companies spend the majority of their merchandising and marketing budgets on advertising campaigns and other consumer acquisition initiatives. Ironically, the most reliable path to profitable growth is customer retention. Why not have your cake and eat it, too? When you implement great ecommerce merchandising tactics in your online store, you retain existing customers and gain new ones at the same time. Go for it — we’ll be watching.
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