Every year, more companies join the ranks of e-commerce vendors selling their wares on the Internet. Your Web site faces increasing competition for customer attention and dollars. More than ever, you must do something to set yourself apart from the rest of the pack.
One of the primary advantages of a brick-and-mortar business is the personal touch. When you walk in the door, you see a familiar face that smiles back at you and may even greet you by name. Dealing with a human allows you to ask general questions like, "do you have something that can help me do (whatever)?" The problem with most catalog sites is that you have to already know what you are looking for, or you must be willing to navigate around the site to find the things that interest you.
The larger the catalog, the more difficult this situation becomes for shoppers. Although products are organized into categories or isolated by characteristics such as "recent release," the catalog organization generally does not reflect the specific interests of your shoppers.
Enter the latest trend in Web site development: personalization. The idea behind personalization is to effectively customize your site to reflect the interests of your customers. You can do this by showcasing the products they are most likely to want and by showing them your appreciation for their repeat business.
The first step to personalization is to identify the visitor. You usually accomplish this by storing a browser cookie on the visitor's computer that preserves their identity between browser sessions. A cookie is essentially a tiny file of information that is sent to the server by your browser. If you've ever been to a site that immediately welcomes you back by name, you can bet the site used a cookie to do it. Cookies do add overhead to every communication between the browser and the Web server, so you should only store the information that is necessary. Typically, the cookie just provides the visitor's identity, and you store any other information you need about the visitor on the Web server.
Once you know with whom you are dealing, you can customize their experience at your Web site with some of the following personalization techniques:
* Recommend products and services based on past purchases. Your customers give you valuable insight into their interests when they buy from you. Use that information to highlight the items in your catalog that they are most likely to want.
* Recommend products and services based on other customer purchases. Similar purchasing patterns generally indicate shared interests. You can recommend items to your customers based on what other customers have bought in common with them. For example, if a lot of customers who bought a lawn mower also bought a set of ear protectors, then you should recommend ear protectors to your lawn mower purchasers.
* Preserve a wish list. Customers may be interested in a product that they just aren't ready to buy at the moment. Rather than make them wade through your site to find that item again when they are ready to buy, allow them to put the item on a wish list that they can readily access next payday.
* Let your customers review and rate your products. This sounds risky, because you are afraid your customers might say something bad. Realistically, any kind of feedback is just as valuable to you as it is to the other customers. Let your customers help you fine-tune your product line.
* Offer "preferred customer" discounts. Once you are closely tracking and comparing purchases, you can single out your best customers for special treatment. You can offer coupons via e-mail or even storewide discounts.
The main problem with implementing personalization is that it requires extensive support on the Web site. You have to track all the information necessary to personalize your site, and that information has to be stored somewhere. Then you need site programming that builds dynamic, custom responses for each customer. The good news is that more and more e-commerce solutions offer these features.
A simple shopping cart site is no longer enough to generate customer excitement (if it ever really did). Your site needs to learn the interests of your customers and anticipate their needs, much like your favorite salesperson does down at the store on the corner.