Collaborative Online Shopping: The Next Wave in E-Commerce
Social networks are enabling more online engagement and conversations, but they weren't built for shopping. E-commerce sites have made shopping easier, but they can be lonely Web experiences. These two transformative technologies -- e-commerce, social media -- can come together with collaborative shopping, which can be valuable for both consumers and online businesses.
Shopping with friends has been a mainstay of the retail industry since stores were first introduced. Online shopping, on the other hand, has largely remained a solo experience.
This is changing. That's because the Internet is becoming a social platform, as seen in the explosive growth and worldwide popularity of social networks like Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Twitter, to name a few.
Shoppers now expect a social experience when they visit online stores. For proof, we need look no further than the social media networks themselves. They are being used to try to recreate collaborative brick-and-mortar shopping online. The problem is they were not designed as shopping platforms.
With collaborative shopping, online retailers have the opportunity to create deeper brand engagement for consumers. They can increase conversion rates by enabling collaborative idea sharing and conversation on their websites to move shoppers from consideration to purchase.
Building collaborative shopping into the fabric of an e-commerce site also provides retailers with exclusive business intelligence that can be analyzed to distinguish between influencers, advocates and traditional shoppers.
What Shoppers Want
Although most of us know this intrinsically, our most influential resources for making buying decisions are friends and family. This is followed by social friends and followers, printed articles and celebrities. In a physical store asking for a buying validation or a recommendation from a friend or family member is easy and frictionless. Trying to recreate this process online has been cumbersome and disconnected.
Our research has found that online buyers consider the following five elements to be the most important for meeting their collaborative shopping needs:
- The ability to privately invite people they trust to "shop with them online;"
- To be able to shop side-by-side as if they were together looking at the same products at the same time, but with the freedom to "roam the store" separately;
- The ability to place products in a virtual shopping bag to narrow down buying options and make a purchase decision;
- To be able to collaborate in real time and also asynchronously in order to accommodate busy schedules, time zone differences, etc.;
- The ability to easily access stylists or experts during an online shopping session to ask questions, get advice, etc.
Virtually every major retail vertical market segment -- travel, electronics, jewelry, apparel, etc. -- can benefit from collaboration. For example, when making travel arrangements involving friends and family, there are often multiple variables that need to be taken into account.
In addition, airline and hotel availability and pricing tend to change in real time. This forces buyers to resort to tools that are not designed for collaborative shopping, like email, Facebook and instant message services. This process is painful and inefficient, and ripe for innovation.
What Retailers Get
For retailers, incorporating collaborative shopping capabilities into their e-commerce sites provides key business advantages:
Brand engagement: Collaboration transforms online transactions into rewarding shopping experiences. With each collaborative session, retailers not only augment their current user base but also promote their brands directly on their sites.
Time on site and page views: When shoppers engage in collaborative sessions, they tend to view a greater number of products than when they shop alone, exchange ideas, and engage in real conversations, just as they do in a physical store. The entire visit quickly becomes an experience rather than just a transaction.
Buying sentiments: Current tool sets allow e-commerce sites to measure clickstreams (what you did), but this data does not reveal customer sentiments (why you took the action you did). Collaboration technology has the potential to capture "engagement" business intelligence such as buying sentiments (like, don't like, maybe, etc.) and preferences (too expensive, wrong color, too far, etc.). This information can then be used for targeting and personalization.
Opportunity cost: Without onsite collaboration, customer conversations are happening outside of the site's "walls" and intelligence remains captive in social networks, emails or phone conversations. This prevents online retailers from offering buying incentives, and capitalizing on upsell and cross-sell opportunities.
The Internet has become a global platform for social interaction. If online retailers want to achieve deeper engagement with their customers, they must follow suit.
Adding collaborative shopping capabilities to e-commerce stores makes buying online a social experience that is similar to -- but not constrained by -- the geography and time-of-day limitations associated with brick-and-mortar retail shopping. This approach can also unlock business intelligence on product sentiments and preferences that is currently out of reach in social media networks.