A time-tested merchandising technique gets new vitality through data-driven personalization methods.
A longtime goal of online merchants has been to create a pleasant, personalized shopping experience that encourages purchasing and repeat visits. Another goal of direct marketers is to increase average order sizes online. Ensemble selling—otherwise known as selling by merchandise collections—accomplishes both goals, and has seen widespread use because of its ability to get beyond the structured, linear character of the Web and speak to the emotional issues that drive the shopping behavior of targeted customers.
Ensemble selling is so widely used and successful that it is becoming a standard feature in many sectors, and those merchants who are not using it should immediately consider how they can implement it on their Web sites. Fortunately, new ways to use existing technologies can make ensemble selling more effective and remove much of the guesswork involved in optimizing the product collections you offer.
Merchandise ensembles bring together a few products that are related through theme, brand, life-style, activity or any other criteria you determine. These items are presented together in a visually appealing way to stimulate the customer to buy more than one product at a time. Typical ensembles include: jewelry sets (matching earrings, necklace, bracelet, etc.), seasonal items (beach umbrellas, sun block, swimsuits, travel guides), home furnishings (rugs, chairs, décor), and apparel (outfits).
The options are limited only by product selection and business needs. The key is finding products that sell well together.
This powerful merchandising tool usually is announced to customers on home and gateway pages through an eye-catching graphical link and a button in the universal navigation bar. The ensemble index page can take different forms, but usually presents a large kicker image for each ensemble to make it easy for the shopper to see how everything will look together. Clicking on the image opens the ensemble’s detail page.
Ensembles usually are shown in large images, with buttons and drop-downs for product selection, as with the Shop by Outfit section at Ann Taylor (www.anntaylor.com). Some, such as the Sundance Catalog’s Home Collections (www.sundancecatalog.com) have an image-mapped outline of each product that links to the product’s detail page.
The Logic and Emotion Behind a Sale
Product ensembles are designed to appeal to the customer’s needs, whether logical or emotional. Ensemble selling serves two primary purposes:
1. Serving the evolving needs of the Internet shopper. Ensemble collections provide a broader user experience and offer an alternative route to the “buy” button. Rather than forcing the customer to drill down through product categories and sub-categories, ensembles show a collection of related items from multiple categories all at once. This is very appealing to shoppers who are new to shopping the Internet or who do not think in clearly defined categories, since it provides a more intuitive way of finding potential purchases.
2. Suggestive selling. Ensembles increase sales by giving shoppers new ideas about items they may not have considered—just as impulse racks or window displays do at a retail store.
Ensembles can be composed of items specifically designed to go together such as a jewelry set, or they can be composed of diverse items to suit the latest fashion whim, such as a set of casual clothes that evoke a feeling of “casual comfort” or “cowboy elegance.” Either way, they must have some uniting theme that addresses the emotional or practical needs of a large number of your customers.
Use Customer Data to Personalize Your Ensembles
Most ensembles either are hard-coded directly into the site or are administered through the e-commerce application’s site management system. Although this gives the merchandiser control over what is presented, there’s still a good deal of research, manual labor and outright guesswork involved in putting together the optimal ensemble.
New ways of using existing personalization tools can make this job much more quick, easy and effective.
I won’t go into the details of an advanced e-commerce personalization engine here. Suffice to say that the e-commerce engine should be able to identify your shopper’s customer group and adjust things like product sort order, discounts and product selection on the fly.
I’ll use apparel in the following examples because it is the most common and intuitively understood form of the ensemble.
Using an advanced e-commerce personalization engine, it is fairly easy to present a selected group of pre-built apparel ensembles. If your data indicates the shopper is a young man who buys things in a smaller size, show him five or six appropriate ensembles. If he is an older man who buys big-and-tall sizes, show him ensembles of more conservative clothing that come in larger sizes.
A far more complex, but still workable, system involves building ensembles dynamically according to the individual. You need to overcome two challenges here:
• selecting pieces that look good together according to your chosen theme, and
• selecting items that your shopper will like.
Your first step is to go to your product database and use its categorization features to group products that coordinate according to color, style, theme or any other criteria you choose. Your second step is to set up your personalization parameters or business rules to identify what each shopper is most likely to buy according to demographics, previous buying patterns, answers to surveys or other data.
If the young man in the previous example likes to buy college-themed sweatshirts, then the system automatically should select a college-themed garment he has not bought and pair it with something calculated to go well with it: jeans, shorts, sweatpants, hat, shoes, watch and so forth. Throw in a couple of other ensembles of different styles to catch his interest such as casual dress, club wear, etc.
One challenge this presents is graphics: Visually, such ensembles can only be presented through a collection of product thumbnails—not through a single on-model photo (without using some kind of dynamic image generation tool).
Automated Ensemble Creation
Some advanced e-commerce applications now are being developed that will create merchandising collections according to the data gathered through an affinity report. The affinity report is an advanced reporting tool that uses actual sales data to calculate the statistical likelihood of products being purchased in conjunction with each other. You do not need to know anything about the individual shopper or his or her interests.
For example, affinity reports may disclose that the Diamond Rose necklace is 90 percent likely to be bought along with the Diamond Rose earrings, but the Spider-man collectible watch is only 2 percent likely to be purchased along with the Diamond Rose earrings. The e-commerce technology running the site would read the data in the affinity report and create an appropriate Diamond Rose jewelry collection on the fly. And if the system identifies that the Spider-man, Batman and Superman watches are selling well together, those items would be put together in their own collection.
An automated system even can spot unexpected affinities between very diverse products and build ensembles for them, too. The system can adjust or change ensembles occasionally as new buying patterns make themselves apparent. Your personalization rules can come into play to ensure that appropriate collections are presented to each customer group.
Ensembles will see increasing use in the next few years, and not just because they provide an alternative way to find products. They can play an integral part in online strategy if you:
1. Use them in conjunction with online campaigns. Send each customer group an e-mail that includes targeted messaging and images for targeted ensembles. Include a source code so that when your customer clicks through to your site, it serves up a customized landing page containing those particular ensembles. Or link each product in the e-mail directly to that product’s detail page.
2. Turn every category gateway page into a selling page by converting every main gateway image into a clickable ensemble. Create simple ensembles throughout your site and place them on all gateway and index pages to help increase incremental sales and bring slow-moving products to customers’ attention.
3. Create ensembles composed entirely of sale goods to help move discounted or clearance merchandise. Or you might apply discounts to selected ensemble items to encourage customers to use ensembles and to spur sales of related items.
4. Facilitate seasonal or special-event merchandising using special ensembles. If you’re having a Holiday Party sale, create ensembles of clothing, home décor and food items that evoke the holiday spirit. Or more broadly speaking, override your regular ensembles with those created entirely from seasonal products.
Finally, don’t forget that all sales of ensemble goods should be tracked so you know how well they perform for your business. Like other merchants who use them, you’re very likely to find they have a positive impact on your overall Internet sales.
Ken Burke is president and CEO of Multimedia Live, an e-commerce technology and development company based in Petaluma, Calif. He can be reached at (707) 773-3434 or firstname.lastname@example.org.