Ahead of next month’s Retail Week Ecommerce Summit, we speak to some of the event’s key speakers for an early insight into where their online focus lies.

Schuh has stepped up its pre-sale live chat service

Ecommerce has become a complex beast. One of the fastest changing industries in history, online shopping has been transformed beyond imagination since its beginnings more than 16 years ago.

The evolution of multichannel commerce means that retailers face an increasingly intricate set of challenges.

As the Retail Week Ecommerce Summit 2012 will explore in October, they range from bridging the space between off- and online, adapting online strategies to cultural and behavioural differences in international markets and developing a coherent channel-agnostic brand identity, to effecting large-scale in-house structural changes.

Through this raft of challenges, the customer has come into even sharper focus. As Sainsbury’s director of online Jon Rudoe points out: “One of the things we have to remember with online is that it’s still retail – ‘buy low, sell high’ hasn’t changed because of the internet, and neither has ‘delight your customer’. Customers still shop where they can get great product and great value alongside great service.”

Sainsbury’s aims to give ‘fantastic customer service’ through its site

Sainsbury’s aims to give ‘fantastic customer service’ through its site

At its grocery division, Sainsbury’s basic online shopping promise is “to turn up on time”, and to deliver “with fantastic customer service – both through technology and the colleagues that customers interact with through the service”, says Rudoe.

Tying into this focus, Sainsbury’s has rolled out services such as customer SMS communication over the past year, and is working on a new website for 2013. Other changes include mobile sites for both food and non-food categories and changes to its online search and product aisles to improve personalisation. However, it is vital to “ground change in the customer and their needs rather than just use tech for tech’s sake”, advises Rudoe.

Many retailers share that sentiment: implementing technology for the right reasons, while focusing on customer service. And smart technology use can deliver a welcome boost to sales online. Schuh, for example, stepped up its pre-sale online live chat service this year. The service allows Schuh to advise customers on product choice and size, for example, and according to head of ecommerce and customer services Sean McKee the live chat function “takes us that little bit closer to customer engagement with a real person online”.

“We have been absolutely and pleasantly surprised by the result,” he adds. “A visit with live chat is four times more likely to convert than the average visit on the average desktop site.”

Mobile take-off

Another key area of development for the retailer is mobile – including tablet – commerce. Schuh is experiencing an exponential rise in non-desktop online visits, and mobile devices now account for nearly 35% of Schuh’s traffic and more than 20% of online sales, according to McKee.

In 2011, Schuh decided that mobile-optimised sites rather than mobile apps were the ideal route. The decision is “very much about your brand and how it interacts with the customer”, says McKee. As a mid-market, sales volume-driven business, the broad-brush approach of the device-agnostic mobile site was deemed the best solution.

The retailer is also developing an iPad site, which it hopes to launch in time for Christmas. “We can see we have a lot of tablet customers right now and we’re giving them an impaired experience on our desktop site, so [developing a tablet site] is a good opportunity to achieve a higher conversion rate,” says McKee. While the mobile site is pared back and simplified, the tablet site will offer a rich, visual, gesture-driven experience.

The importance of mobile commerce is also illustrated in recent figures from eBay. The company forecast sales of $8bn globally via mobile in 2012, but recently revised the target upwards to $10bn of transactions. “Globally this equates to an item purchased every second using the eBay app,” says eBay senior director for Europe mobile commerce Olivier Ropars. “We will continue to put mobile at the heart of our strategy and create a site that is optimised for every device.”

New technologies

Responding to changing customer needs, eBay is exploring a range of new technologies via mobile devices, such as interactive TV, which allows customers in the US to browse and buy items related to the TV show they are watching using the eBay app, and image recognition, which lets users match products to a photographed colour sample via their smartphones.

As well as the irrepressible rise of mobile commerce, developing international markets is crucial to many online expansion strategies. But even though international online expansion is a quick, comparatively cheap and cost-effective way to take a brand abroad, the factors influencing decisions to expand in a certain region can be varied.

Wiggle head of ecommerce Steve Mills says the main challenges in expanding ecommerce abroad are “understanding local complexities such as customer preferences and expectations around the complete journey – delivery expectations, payment methods, customer service contact methods and so on”.

He adds: “It’s easy to assume that everyone has the same demands as a UK shopper but they do not.”

Wiggle has a structured approach to how it operates in a new market, explains Mills. The retailer will run a base level of activity across multiple markets that it has identified as having potential and then focus on those that respond the best. Asian markets seem to have a bright future, he says, and the company launched Wiggle.cn and Wiggle.jp this year.

However, there are no easy routes to understanding the local complexities, Mills points out. “Very few retailers have done this before, and those that have gone to the extensive trouble to research and investigate do not openly share.”

Learning from peers is vital when implementing new technologies – it is something Morrisons is putting into practice, having come relatively late to the online commerce table. According to Richard Pennycook, outgoing group finance director of Morrisons, this afforded the grocer a unique perspective. It led the super­market group to pursue ecommerce through last year’s acquisition of Kiddicare, rather than through building from scratch.

Kiddicare’s leading-edge technology made it an attractive buy for Morrisons

Kiddicare’s leading-edge technology made it an attractive buy for Morrisons

In the evolution of ecommerce, “people have had to make it up as they went along”, Pennycook points out. “We’ve had the benefit of learning from some of that.”

Kiddicare’s business model, combined with leading-edge technology made it an attractive option, says Pennycook. The group has been upscaling the business since the acquisition, and will soon finally launch its first Morrisons-branded ecommerce site, Morrisonscellar.com.

So in the brave new multichannel world, learning from others’ experiences and implementing new technologies in a considered, customer-focused way can deliver success – and help retailers keep pace with the continuing speed of the ecommerce evolution.

Highlights - Retail Week Ecommerce Summit

The convergence of offline and online

Aurora Fashions group omnichannel director Ishan Patel talks about providing a seamless experience across all channels to increase conversion.

How ecommerce will change the future of retail

Top execs from Waitrose, Morrisons, Debenhams and Pixmania debate whether shops will be used solely as showrooms in the future and explore the changing role of different channels over the next five years.

Mobile commerce and different types of shopper

Shop Direct Group ecommerce director Jonathan Wall and Santander director of ecommerce Matthew Timms discuss which mobile touchpoints are most important, how to develop a single view of the customer and differentiating between a new customer and a returning customer’s journey.

Pinterest-ing: Understanding the benefits of this new social media channel

Homebase multichannel consultant Andy McWilliams and Liberty head of digital Damian Grogan explain how to take advantage of the new social media platform Pinterest to encourage engagement with a brand.

Successfully leveraging business internationally

Topman head of ecommerce Gracia Amico shares strategies for internationalisation – from standardisation to full localisation. She will also explore how to present a consistent brand message while remaining relevant to local markets.



Book before September 28 to claim an extra 15% discount*. To register, call 020 7728 5897 or email retailconferences@EMAP.com. Please quote RETAILWEEK when booking.

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  • The Retail Week Ecommerce Summit 2012, October 30 to 31, is at the Etc Venues, St Paul’s, central London. Click here for more details.