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    Effective Online Merchandising Techniques

    Many shoppers have a hard time finding just the right product. These shoppers, also referred to as "browsers," are just glancing at the products that pass in front of them.

    Because these shoppers don't have specific products in mind, they need help visualizing how the products before them can meet their needs.

    Successful brick-and-mortar retailers know that product presentation greatly affects how well a product sells, so they use merchandising techniques to maximize revenue. Many times, merchandising involves displaying groups of products rather than just individual products to create complete solutions. Retail stores implement merchandising techniques in their window and in-store displays. Catalogers apply merchandising by creating groups of products that convey a lifestyle or usage category.

    When The Sharper Image catalog arrived in the mail recently, I decided it was time to put down the keyboard and do some offline browsing to check out its current products. It's clear that The Sharper Image knows how to merchandise products. The trendy lifestyle products received a full-page or two-page spread with several photos, while other products were grouped together on a page.

    I started wondering to what extent The Sharper Image and other traditional catalogers apply these proven merchandising techniques to their Web sites. After surfing the sites of several companies known for having successful retail and catalog operations, here's what I found.

    The days of basic product presentation on e-commerce sites have given way to more sophisticated product merchandising and presentation. However, some high-profile retailers and catalogers are more effective at this than others.

    As I alluded to earlier, the most basic approach to merchandising is to group products into categories. Sites such as Neiman Marcus and SkyMall list products in each category alphabetically over 10 to 20 pages, which makes it difficult to browse through a category.

    The Pier 1 site makes it easy to find products with dropdown menus for choosing a department and a category within that department. Like many other sites, Pier 1 lists pages of products alphabetically, which puts its "magnifying glass" next to its "mateo table lamp" -- not the most effective browsing technique for consumers.

    Merchandising includes more than just grouping products by categories. It also includes providing extensive product information and creating groups of products being used together.

    Instead of just selling products, it's better to sell complete solutions. For instance, combining napkins from the linen department with napkin rings from the kitchen department creates an elegant accessory combination that completes a place setting. This same merchandising technique is applied in store windows in local malls. Clothing stores frequently have displays that combine pants, shirts, and accessories to create an entire outfit.

    One way to move from product selling to product merchandising on a Web site is to convey lifestyle images that incorporate several of your products.

    Target uses lifestyle photographs in each section of its site to create a sense of product enjoyment. Unfortunately, as you drill down deeper, the site becomes a traditional product-oriented commerce site.

    Spiegel takes lifestyle merchandising a step further by creating a lifestyle section on its site. In each lifestyle area, products from different categories are grouped under various headings.

    The J. Crew Web site is an excellent example of consumer merchandising on the Web. Just as in its print catalog, J. Crew combines individual products into collections that make complete outfits. In addition, other collections are lifestyle-based for both men and women. Customers are not likely to buy the complete collection. However, seeing how well several items work together may make some customers more inclined to buy more than one item.

    In each of these examples, product merchandising has been enhanced using techniques such as:

      Lifestyle images. Use photographs of people using products.

      Expanded product information. Give a detailed product description, describe how the product is used, and, when appropriate, provide information from the product's package.

      Multiple photographs. Show the product from several angles, as well as the product being used.

      Product collections. Group several products into a collection that can be used together to create a complete solution to the customer's needs.

    Consumers are always looking for ways to make their shopping more convenient and enjoyable. Applying some traditional merchandising techniques to online shopping helps consumers become more comfortable shopping at a Web site, which increases revenue and long-term loyalty.

    Cliff Allen is the co-author of the book One-to-One Web Marketing; 2nd Ed., published by John Wiley & Sons, and has consulted with companies on strategic marketing for 20 years.

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