By: Brendan Peo, COO Vaimo

You may have caught a TV show called ‘Mary Queen of Shops’. In every episode, retail guru Mary Portas will walk into a shop, look around in aghast disbelief, give the shop owner a righteous bollocking about the things they’re doing wrong, and then starts shifting things around. She works with the sales clerks, changes the position of displays, shifts which item is next to what accessory. She’s a whirlwind of retailer therapy.

Most e-commerce sites (particulaly in SA where we’re a bit new to it all) need a ‘Mary Queen of e-Shops’. South African e-tailers spend a lot of time on the site design, on the stock selection, even on advertising and promotion. But they forget about the most important person in sales: the salesperson. The person in the store that makes you feel welcome, gives you encouragement, makes suggestions. The salesperson that makes the difference between you walking out the shop with a new jersey, and walking out with two new jerseys, a pair of gloves and a trendy new scarf.

But the salesperson’s job is not done when the sale is rung up. When the customers are gone, good salespeople talk to the business owner about trends, about customer patterns, about what is hot and what is not. They are the vital source of intelligence about what makes the customer tick… and in the online world, what makes them click.

Good salespeople are all-important in retail. Online, the salesperson is not a person at all, it is intelligence that should be built into the technology that drives the website.

South Africa’s retailers are realising that an Internet presence will drive medium to long-term success as shopping moves online, and are looking at the technology they will need. Most attention in the beginning tends to fall on the back-end (stock management, financial management, etc). Closer to launch time, it’s all about the pretty Website. But there is a lot more to optimising the front end than tasteful colours and clever animations. That’s because the e-commerce site is the shop-front – but it’s also the salesperson.

When designing your online webshop, think of the ecommerce system as a virtual sales force. The technology platform should have a strong feature set, such as being able to interact in any language. It should be endlessly reliable, on duty around the clock. It should also be smart, to anticipate and suggest choices and accessories to the customer.

The virtual salesperson should have the central goal of driving up the spend of every customer who logs on to your site. It should encourage people to spend rather than simply browse (conversion rate lift), it should work to increase the average order sizes (cross sells and upsells), and it should seek to drive repeat sales (customer loyalty).

Your ecommerce technology should adapt to each user and their preferences, while working for you, thinking for you and especially selling for you. The key is that the virtual ‘salesperson’ is able to gather and use data.

Some data is freely available, for example people’s use and travels through their favourite social media platforms and recommendations sites. There is also a huge amount of information that can be gathered by people’s interactions with affiliates, search engines and analysing how they move from one part of the Internet to your site. Once on your site, there are ‘perception’ capabilities, such as site sensors, channel detection and audit trails, which can be combined with user state and time awareness to provide further context to let your virtual salesperson sell better.

Your e-commerce platform must recognise users and respond to them in a relevant and personalised way. It should intelligently tailor search results, navigation, product information and content to e-shoppers.

Applying existing data can result in predictions and recommendations for individual users; it can also work on information from many users to make assumptions about what new customers may want. That’s the power of concepts such as neural networks, Game Theory, Bayesian probability and Fuzzy Logic. These are just some of the techniques and strategies which can determine how your webshop interacts with the customer. Many of them are built into modern e-commerce systems.

As you start looking into your web presence, consider just what kind of a salesperson it will be. Once you get people to your website, whether they spend money is often less dependant on them seeing a perfect, gorgeous site, as much on how well the webshop is designed, and whether the virtual salesperson is helping them at every step to click ‘buy’.

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