Loyalty for Shopping Sites

At Shop It To Me, we interview people all of the time about their shopping habits, and with the exception of maybe Amazon, there currently really is no one major player among pure shopping search sites.

When someone wants to search for an item or shop for an item, they either shop a number of individual retailers or go to google and do a search.    Yes, shopping aggregator sites like Nextag, Shopzilla and Shopping.com get millions of users coming to their site, but for the most part their traffic is derived from some variant of Google search results.   Google “black trousers” and I promise you’ll see at least one of theses sites in your search results.  They’re awesome at figuring out how to be the top result.   But the relationship is really between the user, Google and the end retailer.   If Google one day swaps one of these aggregators for another the user doesn’t care, let alone notice.

And while ‘Loyalty’ and “Cash Rebate” sites have people coming directly, the customer’s loyalty is to the rebate — not the actual site.  That customer may come now,  but they’ll also be the first to leave when a retailer or another competitor has a better rebate or discount.

Shopping queries account for a substantial percentage of all searches, and while we have solutions for “searches for people” (LinkedIn/Facebook), Travel (Kayak),  Restaurants (Yelp) and general information (Google) we have no great solution for products.

I believe there is a huge opportunity to build a shopping experience (site, mobile, email) with real loyalty.  A site that people will actually access directly as opposed to via the search engine and will give customers real value.

To do this, I believe we need to rethink how shopping sites work altogether.  The site that gains people’s long term loyalty will be the one that optimizes the relationship as opposed to just optimizing the transaction.  It will be the place you go because it gets you;  it knows what you want, what you like, what you crave.  It will be the place that looks out for your best interest.  Going anywhere else would be a waste of your time and money.

At Shop It To Me, we’re building a next generation platform that I believe can one day realize that vision.  We’re not there yet, but we’re on our way and I’m really excited about the progress we have made so far!

And if you want to help us make this a reality, join us!

Personalization does not have to be “Creepy”

On Sunday, The New York Times ran an article arguing that retailers’ personalization attempts are backfiring because they are becoming too personalized. The piece quoted several retailers who had tested sophisticated personalization tools with poor results. They concluded that consumers just don’t like it if retailers know them “too” well.

I think that conclusion is off the mark.  Retailers are having problems not because they are too personalized but because they are not giving customers the four things needed to make personalization succeed:  Transparency, Control, Accuracy and Trust.

Let’s start with transparency. People feel something is “creepy” when they either don’t understand it or didn’t know it was happening.  Personalizing your site is meant to help the customer–so treat it like the awesome feature it is instead of a devious secret you don’t want the customer to know.  Announce on your Web site that “The site will get better with every click you make.” Tell customers from the beginning what you think you know about them (and how you figured it out) and update it as they click so they can see how your algorithm works.  Most people are secretly enamored with what technology can do and a site can go from “creepy” to “cool” very quickly if you just explain how you do your magic.

Second, to succeed with hyper-personalization, a site must give their users control.   People really like to be in control (just read Dan Gilbert’s popular book Stumbling Upon Happiness).  When personalizing a site, give your users a chance to change what you know about them, and/or turn it off completely.  Most people won’t make a change, but everyone will appreciate that they could.  On top of that, people have a strong psychological urge to change things that look incorrect. So if you make it easy to change the things that might be wrong, you’ll have users happily giving you the correct information.

Third, to win at personalization, a site has to be accurate.  The New York Times article cited an example about women with families who complained that a retailer showed them only women’s clothing (and not men’s) because of their gender. This is not a problem of hyper-personalization; this is a problem of inaccurate personalization.  Companies assume the best way to “understand” a user is to watch the few things they click and buy (and where else they travel on the web) and make judgments based on that, but that is the equivalent of watching a person shop for a few pairs of jeans and shorts and then assuming that they are not likely in the future to buy shirts.   Great personal shoppers interact with their customers and start a dialog–they talk to them and find out what they really need both now and in the future.  If you really want to be a retailer who differentiates on personalization, you are going to have to do the same.

Which leads me to the final  (and probably the most difficult) challenge:  Trust.  Consumers will be willing to give you their information and let you use it if they trust that you have their best interests at heart.  If your company is using personalization as a way to boost revenues, you’ll only get so far —  the customer will quickly become aware of this and feel exploited. If, on the other hand, your company truly is dedicated to building a great customer experience (even above revenue) your customers will be much more willing to share their information.  Most retailers would say they are customer-focused but few really are.  A good litmus test:  Would your company prioritize an investment in personalization if people loved it but it was guaranteed to produce no additional revenue?

So there you have it–sites can succeed in personalization, but they need all four of Transparency, Accuracy, Control and Trust.  Or to say it in a pithy way, sites will need a whole lot of TACT.

Focus: What is your product going to be awesome at?

One of the most important things to do when you are building a product of any size is to focus.   Pick the few things you are going to be amazing at and the many things you will not be.  It’s hard, but it’s the only way to succeed.

Try to be great at everything and you’ll end up with a mediocre product.  Focus on one thing to be great at and you have a chance to dominate your competition.  Why?  You can align your entire company (sales, marketing, product, dev) on just one goal and therefore do it so well nobody can compete.

Take Google Search.  Since their launch their focus has always been one thing:  Get you an answer to your question as fast as possible.  Their home page doesn’t have ads or news or anything but one big search field.  Most of the features they add have traditionally been about making that better.  Or take Walgreens. They don’t have the best selection or the lowest prices.  But they succeed because they are the most convenient with stores on pretty much every corner.  They’ll pay up to be on every street corner so that at the moment you need something you first come to them.

When we are thinking of building out a new product, I generally ask three questions: Where do we want to Win? Where are we just going to Play (and be just good enough)? And where are we purposely going to Lose (and let someone else win)?  A great product will have all three.

At Shop It To Me, we want to win on personalization — understanding you, the consumer, like nobody else  and then showing you the most personally relevant items on sale.  And almost everything we do reflects that.  We launched first in a category (clothing) where personalization is super-important.  We require all of our users to tell us all of their individual preferences before they can sign up.  We have invested in sophisticated technology to figure out which sizes a retailer has available each morning and which are sold out so that your email only has items in your size.

When it comes to personalization — we purposely do the hard stuff.  Our system knows which items you have seen before so you don’t get duplicates and even tries to guess items and sales you might like based on not only your behavior but the preferences of others like you. We send millions of emails every day and each one is different —  individually personalized for its recipient.  It’s the reason why my mom, my wife and my teenage cousin can each feel like the Shop It To Me emails they receive are “just for them”.

To keep this focus, we are willing to give up on winning other things: We don’t have a celebrity promoting us; our site is pleasing but there are many that are prettier; we don’t include fashion advice or content in our emails;  our item pictures are good but definitely not the best.

And for many things that are critical to most shopping sites,  we are willing to lose completely:  we don’t play SEM arbitrage and our SEO is terrible.  Why?  None of these matter for a personalized product.  In fact, they hurt it.  Instead of optimizing for a transaction, we want to build a long-standing relationship with our users — and that requires a different type of interaction and focus.

In fact, I believe it is our unending focus on a personalized shopping experience that lets us succeed and thrive in a crowded marketplace.    While some companies have made personalization a feature (and are trying to shortcut it by guessing based on what you clicked or optionally asking you) — we have made it our core which means when it comes to building a product “just for you”, we can beat them every time.

So my question for you product managers out there:  What do you want to be awesome at?