E-commerce has, believe it or not, moved on since 2001

Gone are the days when websites were about funky flashing logos and colourful animations. Of course, good design still counts for a lot, but good design is really about making your site easy and effective, a standard tool for increasing your business, improving service and reducing costs. Flash movies, cute though they are, hardly achieve this.

Think of it from the customer’s point of view. She happens upon your website after it appeared in a news page highlighted on page three of Google. Her eyes ignore the logo that your executive team spent weeks debating. She skims the arcane menus your marketing people dreamed up, wondering where she can find that perfect gift. She clicks, she waits. She hits the back-button. The search facility yields nothing from your catalogue’s hidden treasures. Eventually, she finds a product – the picture is blurred when it eventually arrives. She succeeds in loading the basket – despite the scripting error – indeed perseveres through the registration swamp and struggles through payment and delivery, wondering whether her order has been really taken or not.

Back at base, you receive an email, call your card processor and key the order into your fulfilment system – you’re relieved it’s actually in stock. After a few days, she chases you for the shipping news, the gift is despatched and that’s the end of it. But she’s never coming back. In a year when retail sales online will hit £1bn per month, according to IMRG, she buys books on Amazon, CDs on Virgin, flights on EasyJet. Still, it’s not all bad: somewhere, on her hard drive, one of those designer-image files still snuggles deep in a stack of temporary Internet files. Plus, you’re online: the DTI estimates that 23% of all retailers have no form of e-commerce at all and you’re one of the progressive 6% actually allowing online ordering.

Imagine this: you attract visitors to your web site without having to send out a catalogue, recognise your customer when she arrives and offer her relevant products that are available from stock, up-sell or cross-sell during the purchase, based on her preferences, then allow her to choose and buy her products with the minimum of clicks, and to be encouraged to return soon. Imagine that all your orders are automatically transferred into your sales processing system, and your online stock levels are automatically updated. On top of this, a targeted email invites her back with a special offer on that new linen range. By carefully analysing customer preferences and purchasing patterns, you are able to manage your inventory and promotions. What’s more, it’s here, it works and it’s affordable.

Until recently these sorts of technologies were available only to companies willing to invest many hundreds of thousands on IT infrastructure. Mail order companies can now deliver a full range of these Amazon-style services through their websites for minimal incremental outlay, as solution providers like Screen Pages embrace new technologies and package them up at attractive prices. What was once the preserve of the very big, executed in partnership with major IT consultancies, is now easily within the grasp of catalogue companies.

Here’s a ten-point guide about what the winners are doing.

1. Persuade customers to register

The key to success is capturing customer information. Make sure you’re building a database of important information that will enhance your offering. Try to elicit not just the transactional stuff (address, email etc), but also profile information (age, sex, interests, favourite car). Your customer is identified when she arrives at your website; address, shipping and payment information is automatically retrieved from encrypted databases. You’ll have to motivate them to want to do this, of course, but a £5 gift voucher or other incentive could well be worth the investment.

2. Reduce the click count

Armed with your customer’s transactional data, you can begin your quest for single-click shopping. You already know where they want it delivered, and how they pay. “Cookies” can store scrambled customer identifications and cross-reference this with your databases, pre-filling all the forms, taking you close to Amazon’s 1-click.

3. Personalise your content

She’s already spent £100 with you – your databases know this. You know her size and her interests. Next time she visits, your home page can push a special offer to her and all the other VIPs who spent similar sums. All this is hardly rocket-science: technology helps make your catalogue directly relevant to your customer by recognising her, understanding and remembering her preferences through personalised, one-to-one marketing, where you build up a direct relationship with each of your customers. It is designed to make your customers feel welcome, offer up relevant products and make the buying process easier and more convenient.

4. Keep the campaigns coming

You can create themed views of your catalogue, offering bundles and special discounts without the need for expensive programmers. Successful retailers merchandise aggressively to keep consumer interest high, generating campaigns to drive traffic, supported by discounts and offers. Best practice e-commerce offerings enable your marketing teams to set up and monitor promotions throughout your website. Increasingly effective is the use of targeted email broadcasts, including links to specific pages in your catalogue. Screen Pages’ analysis shows that some companies are enjoying response rates on targeted emails of over 70%.

5. Cross-sell

Suddenly, cross selling and up selling is within your grasp. Like the shirt? Buy the cufflinks that match. You can set up cross-sells based upon your experience (or intuition), or employ powerful predictive tools, which make recommendations on order histories: customers who order this photo storage system prefer those sleeve pages.

6. Keep your content and catalogue fresh

Over and above the regular seasonal updates, you can easily create extra views or themes: ‘country casuals’, ‘organic’ etc, giving your customers more different and perhaps more relevant ways of navigating your products. Make sure that something changes all the time: remember that your promotional activity and emails will drive customers to your site on a regular basis. Modern e-commerce packages empower your own staff to create pages, link them into your website menus and update the words and pictures at leisure – without any technical know-how.

7. Straight-through processing

Perhaps the biggest bugbear is all that re-keying and manual processing associated with your website. Creating automated software interfaces to your fulfilment and order-processing systems has become a routine task taking no more than a few days to set up. Simply by calculating the people costs associated with doing this manually, you can assure yourself of significant cost-savings.

8. Show what’s in stock

Linking your website to your back office means that only items in stock are displayed. No more embarrassing phone calls when you cannot fulfil their order. When coupled with personalised content (“we’ve got something you’d really like”), you have a very powerful selling tool.

9. Measure

You manage what you measure, goes the saying. According to the DTI, only 9% of retailers conduct any form of metrics on their e-commerce operations. Successful mail order companies are now beginning to analyse visitor activity in more ways than simplistically watching the hit-count, or if you’re sophisticated, tracking response times on key transactions. Next generation e-commerce websites can measure and warehouse any important customer interaction: who (and what type of customer) browses what products, what goes into the shopping basket, how the promotion worked and so on.

10. Analyse

Armed with your data warehouse of customer, product and transactions (and not just orders), you can apply real business intelligence to your e-commerce operations. With accurate profiles of your customers, what they like and how they spend, you are equipped with arguably the most flexible selling tools that mankind has yet devised.

The next generation of e-commerce is well and truly here. Technology has moved on immeasurably and catalogue companies should expect to see to 30% of their overall business being transacted via their web site. As well as increasing sales, they can gain significant improvements in efficiency and lower costs associated with order processing. But the keys to engaging customers successfully online are ultimately the same as they are in the offline world: price, convenience and service.