If you’re at all like me, you’re eager for a return to a semblance of the “old normal.” You miss sitting in your favorite coffee shop, trying the specials in your local diner, browsing the stacks at your neighborhood bookstore, or trying on clothes in the fitting room. Here’s a surprise: If you’re at all like me, you’re not much like the majority of young people. A recent survey of Gen Z shoppers discovered that 64 percent plan to keep buying almost everything online, even when the economy is fully and safely reopened. What does this mean for retailers? If the money’s staying online, how can today’s retailers win tomorrow’s business?
Figuring out what happens when a shopper pulls up your website should be the top priority for any online or hybrid business. Your local grocery store’s layout has been fine-tuned and focus-tested to ensure its operators make as many sales as possible. Your digital storefront should be, too. A retail website will have a few types of visitors. Some arrive at a site already knowing what they want, how much it will cost, and how long fulfillment will take. A lot has to go wrong for these customers to not make a purchase. Other shoppers are more hesitant. They’re undecided, browsing offerings, but not yet committed to a purchase. Perhaps they’ll add an item to their shopping cart, then navigate to a different website entirely.
In a highly competitive environment, how do companies figure out which customers are which? By now — in part because of the ubiquity of Google Analytics (GA) — most e-commerce companies reliably track page views, web traffic, and sale income stats. As compelling as these stats may seem, all they really do is tell you how customers arrived at your website, not what those customers do while there. For some businesses, items on the landing page might be most interesting to consumers, while for other long-tail businesses, most consumers go straight to the search box. A more robust tracking system can identify the strategies that best suit your specific business, and tell you what ought to change. Do customers buy more when they arrive at the site via a targeted ad link? Are mobile shoppers less likely to check out? How does a prominent “Free Shipping” notification affect conversions?
Consumers now generate thousands of potential data points each time they visit your site. Does this mean that every digital retailer should have a data scientist or three on staff? No, it doesn’t. But it does mean that small and medium businesses can reap significant benefits by leveraging an analytics solution to track visitor behavior and improve site experience. Even the slowest analytics solution can deliver daily traffic and behavior reports; by the standards of five years or 10 years ago, everything is lightning fast. So the key factor in choosing an analytics solution is determining how thorough its data collection procedure is. Limited and piecemeal analysis might be helpful, but chances are there are vital metrics you haven’t even considered gathering. If you’re not receiving exhaustive data, you’ll be slow to identify problems and slower to fix them.
Once on your site, shoppers may be taking shortcuts or alternate routes. But what those paths are and who is taking them are rarely immediately apparent. Indeed, predictable business is far from the only business; most retailers also have “shadow funnels” of customers who take a different path to purchasing. If you can shed light on these shadowy portions of your business, you can often make major business improvements with only minor outlay. While a grocery store owner can’t reorganize her operation overnight, website tweaks are often low cost and high speed. A good analytics provider will surface all these possibilities for you.
Perhaps Gen Z will return to in-person shopping; perhaps after COVID, stores will overflow with zoomers, with millennials, with Gen Xers, and even with the occasional boomer. Even so, a large percent of formerly analog businesses will remain digital. Retailers must make sure they’re ready for an even more online future. With more and better information about how shoppers behave and why they make the choices they do, merchants and customers alike will be happier. The future of retail may not look like its past, but we have all the tools we need to make it better for everyone.
Ken Fine is the CEO of Heap, a digital analytics platform that gives users all of their customer data and the tools to turn that data into action.