Having left the world of consultancy to carve out a career in retail, Kath Brown shared with Be the Business the ecommerce insights she picked up while working for outdoor apparel business Mountain Warehouse and ceramics brand Emma Bridgewater.
While the ability for people to shop online has been possible since 1994, when an album by Sting became the first product to be sold on the internet, we are now in a position where nearly a fifth of retail transactions take place on the world wide web.
Driven by better online shopping experiences, the proliferation of smartphones and better internet connectivity, the bigger retail battles are being waged on the internet rather than the high street.
For Kath Brown, the rise of ecommerce was one she couldn’t let pass her by. After a number of roles in consultancy, primarily for OC&C Strategy Consultancy, she made the decision to join Mountain Warehouse as their head of ecommerce.
Back then the business was starting to build a bigger presence online, wanting to capitalise on the demand for its outdoor apparel. It’s affordable price point made it a hit on the high street and then was the time to ramp up digital efforts.
Getting it right online comes down to adopting an iterative process that takes advantage of analytics and user behaviour to shape the digital shop window. “At Mountain Warehouse we had people who exclusively ran experiments,” she remembered.
One of the most important projects Brown and her team carried out involved asking online users whether they would share thoughts on the shopping experience. After being served a pop-up box making this request, a phone call would be made and a Mountain Warehouse representative had the opportunity to find out, first hand, how the process of buying something on the website went.
“It was eye opening to see what customers were doing around the website. One of the best things we asked was what one thing almost put them off buying – this flagged some really interesting things.”
Brown likes to break down tests into two categories – those looking at design and those addressing overall strategy and a more value-led proposition. “Generally, if you run a test and have some findings that are conclusive, have built variations into the test and have identified something to improve, it’s quite rare you wouldn’t put that into action,” she added.
“But what is more important is having a wider strategy piece going on. You can change the size, shape and colour of everything – there are an infinite amount of variations. Instead, it comes down to having a hypothesis you want to test, where it’s more about planning than putting something into action.”
On the topic of user personas, Brown again had a different take on things. Online personas, she explained, are different from traditional marketing personas. “In the physical world you’d talk about ‘blue collar’ or an ‘affluent family in rural England’ – those funny kind of portraits that influence the buying of advertising space,” she said. “I spent zero time analysing that sort of stuff or thinking about customer interests or hobbies.”
Instead, Brown looked at whether they were a new purchaser or retained customer. Then it was what frequency they purchased. She pointed towards the RFM model, which stands for recency, frequency and monetary value. While some customers buy from a brand exclusively at Christmas, others do so each month. It is these kinds of insights that should drive marketing communication, Brown added.
“Look at your 10,000 best customers, and examine what each of them did after their first purchase, if there are trends. What did that second purchase look like? Line up that “VIP” group alongside other customers and see if there is anything different,” she suggested.
Brown believes business are often guilty of thinking their customers are “super unique”, which the are not. It comes down to identifying patterns of buying behaviour and tailoring a marketing message towards that,
Bricks vs clicks
Despite not having the benefit of regular footfall, Brown believes online businesses have a number of advantages. One of the biggest is the ability to converse with existing or would-be customers several times a day through mediums such as social media. This more constant stream of information creates a sense of dynamism that helps consumers overcome a nervousness of a new brand.
Building on these ecommerce insights, Brown touched on the deep dive analysis that can be done on digital consumers – identifying those buying behaviours and offering up a tailored shop window to particular visitors.
However, there are occasions when it simply doesn’t make sense for a company to take itself online. “I was in Northern Ireland at the start of this year visiting a selection of Emma Bridgewater customers. One of them was a little gift shop in a small town just outside of Belfast. It operated very much as an impulse pick-up shop, and was well run in a area with good footfall – it served a local community.
“The owner told me she knows how her shop works, who her customers are and how they think. She knew nothing about running an online business, but also didn’t think anyone wanted to buy her goods online.”
If online is the right path for a business to go down, Brown recommends gaining a firm understanding of both technology and what user needs are. “While a customer needs to, for example, be able to see birthday cards, as a merchant you need to able to run a bank holiday campaign,” she explained.
“Start with those kind of thoughts and then keep coming back to user requirements. Get brutal and challenge yourself. Do you or them really need to do that? If you’re in doubt, cut it out. A little by little approach, rather than one great thing, is a far better way to work.”
For a business to be successful online, Brown concluded, it’s important to be clear with how much it costs to acquire a customer. “Yes, the cost of operating is cheap – but you still need to understand the cost of acquiring a customer,” she added. “If you have a cheap to run online business, great, but if no one knows your website is there it won’t operate well. Attention and marketing isn’t cheap, there are so many things clamouring for your attention. You need to cut through noise – that is the challenge.”
Read about how five SMEs leaders picked the best social media platform for their business.