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As the novelty expires, e-commerce learns to love consumer service

With e-commerce now becoming an unexceptional part of many consumers' typical shopping regimen, digital sales channels need to learn to love customer service, according to delegates at London's eCommerce Expo 2013.

Photo: eCommerce delegates: getting more digital by the minute.
eCommerce delegates: getting more digital by the minute.

It can now be taken as a given that consumers essentially 'get digital'. The most successful companies, though, 'get' that consumers also expect outstanding service from start to finish, with web interaction just one part of their overall buying experience, albeit a key one. That, in essence, was the lesson from this year's eCommerce Expo at London's Olympia.

More fully, the message was that e-commerce is not just about the digital welcome, the browsing experience and the goods on offer. The way that e-consumers negotiate and pay for their purchases – and even how they feel once their goods have been delivered – are all key factors in developing and driving an e-commerce platform.

Most research now suggests that, Amazon aside, comparatively few e-commerce sites succeed in securing repeat or extended business from customers. Dissatisfied consumers cite a lack of communication, little goodwill, overly-complex merchant services, minimal customer engagement and delivery problems as the issues that alienate them from e-commerce companies. Above and beyond that, there is the more nebulous suggestion that many such companies just show no sign of wanting to engage with consumers on a long-term basis.

This pronounced emphasis on the 'total user experience' saw the biggest stands at this year's event dominated by payment companies, notably Visa and Barclaycard. There was also a sizeable presence from several logistics companies, including DHL, UPS and the Royal Mail, as well as number of international warehousing, channel stockists and management system companies. Attendees across these sectors included the PVS Group (a German fulfillment house) and Ohio's Automated Packaging Systems. A more surprising addition to the exhibitors' roster was the CN Group, a privately-owned North of England newspaper company that was keen to demonstrate its ability to reach consumers across its home territory.

Perhaps seeking to bask in a little reflected glory, the show's organisers were also keen to stress that PayPal chose eCommerce 2013 as the launch platform for its new debit cards for high street shoppers, should such a breed still exist.

Tellingly, a quick scan through the business activities of the exhibitors confirmed just how little emphasis the ecommerce community now places on web marketing and usability. Brand development exhibitors, together with marketing and usability companies, actually made up only around one in four of all exhibitors, a sharp drop in the ratio of just a few years ago.

The largest contingents of exhibitors were from six distinct sectors – content management, e-commerce, payment processing, multi-channel solutions, warehouse management systems and logistics. The presence of more than a dozen hosting companies – including UKFast, the show's lead sponsor – was a testimony to one particular e-commerce mantra – without speed, you're the 'walking wounded'.

With over 6,500 visitors attending across the two days, the keynote speaker sessions and the four sector specific theatres (one apiece for e-commerce and social platforms; digital and mobile marketing; delivery and customer loyalty and payment and security), were all inevitably over-subscribed. Equally inevitably, the event also attracted representatives from all of the giants of the sector, including speakers from Facebook, Twitter, Google, Sony and Hewlett-Packard.

Big Data – the massive volume of difficult-to-access esoteric customer data that typically defies use in standard database applications – was, predictably, the theme of many of these presentations. According to Elaine Cook, Strategic Marketing Director for retail technology at Intel UK, the microprocessor giant, big data remains very much the province of large corporates and those companies with extensive data management experience, such as mail order companies and the more enlightened retail groups.

For many, she said, it still represented largely uncharted territory, with the majority of companies simply failing to understand how they could make substantial additional revenues from such data. Most companies – the core group above notwithstanding – she believes, are focused on selling their core services to the exclusion of the complementary revenue streams represented by monetising their data. They ignore at their loss, she said, the chance of turning the existing data they hold on customers into new and complementary sales.

Despite the undoubted – but often mystified – interest in Big Data, the subject was undoubtedly upstaged by the presence of Dara Nasr, Head of Agency Sales at Twitter UK. His presentation – Connecting with your Customers and How to use Social Media for E-commerce – was, undoubtedly, the second biggest draw on the opening day of the event.

In keeping with the overall tone of the Expo, his opening remarks focused on the new reality of Twitter, as with many of other forms of social media, now being part of the fabric of ordinary life. With their novelty long gone, it's the way that brands now lever the power of these 'everyday' tools, he said, that will distinguish them in the marketplace.

According to Nasr, Twitter's particular strength lies in its ability to allow people to converse in real time. Citing an example, he said, on Sunday evenings, with the working week imminent and Monday morning dread kicking in, Twitter topics turn to shopping and shopping habits, as people endeavour to postpone their workaday reality. Just 12 hours later, he said, Twitter traffic on the Monday morning proper changes from escape to determination, as comments about health, new challenges and new jobs reach their weekly high.

Nasr's advice to brands was to plan these new peaks and troughs into their marketing activity. Only then, he said, can they ensure their digital marketing initiatives are delivered in a timely and appropriate fashion.

Perhaps ironically, Twitter, that most contentious and news-friendly of social media, was itself upstaged. Even the news that the company is to file – presumably in more than 140 characters – for an IPO on the New York Stock Exchange, couldn't trump a seminar on one fundamental aspect of e-commerce – the checkout process. Fittingly, it fell to Visa, one of the pioneers of the credit card world, to outline the next stage in the evolution of online payments.

As part of his presentation – A New Era of Payments in the Changing Digital Landscape – Jonathan Vaux, Senior Vice President of Visa Europe, introduced delegates to the company's new V.me digital wallet service, its new mobile-friendly payment facility. V.me users can make online payments using only their email and a password for authentication, a move said to save both time and hassle.

Photo: PayPal credit cards: coming to a high street near you very soon.
PayPal credit cards: coming to a high street near you very soon.
Photo: V.me by Visa: easy mobile payments are the way forward.
V.me by Visa: easy mobile payments are the way forward.

The launch of the new service has been prompted by Visa's own research, research that shows that, by 2020, almost half of all of its transactions in Europe will take place via a mobile device. With the failure/abandonment rate of mobile payments currently running at around 60%, it is clear that – if successful – this new initiative could be worth billions to both retailers and to Visa itself.

With customers craving both speed and security, Vaux sees many of the industry's traditional physical channels set to vanish forever. In their place, he envisages the use of a vast array of digital payment options, including barcodes/QR codes, NFC, checkout apps and, increasingly, facial recognition software.

Despite the understandable emphasis on virtual shopping, the role of the traditional high street retailer still loomed surprisingly large. More than one session was keen to emphasise just how much e-commerce operators could learn from the time-honoured practices of the finest high street outlets.

With this in mind, it was a surprisingly large contingent that vied for tickets for a second day seminar on the future of the high street. While, disappointingly, representatives of many of the major retailers were largely absent, a number of leading digital brands with a keen interest in the retail landscape were conspicuously present.

Luminaries on hand to offer their advice to conventional retailers included Martijn Bertisen (Google's Senior Industry Retail Head), Katy Clark (Group Relationship Director for Nectar), Rosie Akenhead (Manager of Local Business Outreach at Yelp UK), the local information provider and Glen Richardson (Chief Marketing Officer for Fruugo) the global e-commerce site, who was representing the Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG), the UK online retailers trade body.

The panel debate was dominated by the impact of e-commerce on the high street. The consensus, perhaps predictably so, was that, despite the outstanding shopping experience offered by the finest physical retailers, it is the online world that now offers the optimum shopping environment, one that bricks and mortar retailer find impossible to match. With both channels likely to co-exist for some time, it was felt that the best way forward was to ensure a synergy across the physical and digital shopping platforms. In this way a level of customer service and satisfaction could be delivered that neither channel could offer on its own.

The Trinity Leeds, Land Securities' new one million sq ft development in the north of England, was cited as a pioneering example of just what could be done. The new development has been billed as offering “an omni-channel shopping experience”, is said to promote a real synergy between bricks and mortar and e-commerce. Its innovative approach has been designed to embody new ways of involving customers more fully in the 'brand universe', while offering them new consumer experiences.

The growing importance of bridging the gap between on- and off-line shopping was highlighted by the experiences of these digital retailers – Kiddicare, Oak Furniture Company and Made.com – all of whom are now actively forging in-store relationships with their bricks and mortar counterparts. The intent behind this enhanced co-operation is to create a better overall shopping experience, enabling both parties to support and enhance existing customer loyalty while developing new revenue streams.

Over the course of its two days, this year's eCommerce Expo demonstrated how engrained the online shopping experience has become for many consumers. While this has seen a vast number of local and global opportunities emerge, it has also changed the rules of engagement. With novelty consigned to history, online operators now need to ensure that the whole retailing offer is seamless – from marketing to on- and off-line product engagement through to payment and ultimately delivery. As with the high street retailers, who once distinguished themselves through their high levels of services, it is those online companies that can truly build customer rapport and satisfaction that will prosper in the long term.

Photo: The 2013 eCommerce Expo: 'every aspect of digital selling'.
The 2013 eCommerce Expo: "every aspect of digital selling".

The eCommerce Expo 2013 ran from 2-3 October at London's Olympia. The show, which focused on “every aspect of online selling” claims to be the largest show of its kind in the UK and the second largest in Europe. This year, the show attracted 160 exhibitors, a modest increase on the 2012 figure. Visitor numbers, however, enjoyed a marked increase of 11%, taking the total to 6,595.

Nick Jaspan, Special Correspondent, Manchester

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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