Experience Over Access: Why The Days Of The Digital Catalog Are Done

It’s 10:00 PM, a woman sits on her sofa, unwinding after a long day. Lying back, feet up, she browses the latest dresses from her favorite brand, compares a few and chooses one to buy. She fills in her credit card details, address, phone number and shipping preference and heads to bed. Setting her alarm, she writes herself a note to mail the order in the morning. It’s 1985 and mobile shopping is still 30 years away.

The More Things Change….

So what’s different today? What has changed for the mobile shopper, browsing products on their sofa, or in a coffee shop, since the days of the branded mail-order catalog? A lot. Digital payments, one-click ordering, personalized product suggestions and same-day shipping are all improvements, but for the average shopper, do these improvements really have a significant impact? Research shows that shoppers are willing to wait an extra couple days to receive a product if the shipping is free and that segmenting customers down to 8 – 12 groups works almost as well as the best personalization available today — or sometimes better, to account for people preferring ‘random’ discovery. Many people never store credit card details online with a retailer and digital payment still often means transcribing credit card numbers via a software keyboard, which isn’t that far from using pen and paper.

What about how shoppers search for products before purchasing? There’s a big difference between a digital device, like a smartphone, and a flat, printed catalog. Or is there? Though the medium itself may be vastly different, the user experience, in fact, couldn’t be more similar. From browsing product categories by looking through a list, to zooming in on images, our smartphone shopper in 2015 is doing much of what our catalog shopper in 1985 was doing. She’s just doing it with a different medium in her hand. The experience is still, at its core, a self-serve, DIY version of shopping, that, compared to the in-store experience, can leave a lot to be desired. Print catalogs may actually even be faster to browse than a typical mobile website. Perhaps some operations have been simplified (like copying over an item number into the order page) in the move to the digital shopping environment, but there are more similarities than differences.

What does that mean to retailers? Can what worked then just be adapted for today’s technology to yield the same results? Not necessarily. Though customers will accept such experiences, they are far from ideal.  While personalization offers a more tailored set of products, its presentation is fundamentally the same as the catalog. Really, personalization is just a better-segmented catalog — a one-to-one print-run, if you will. You can change it more rapidly and at a lower cost than doing a print run of physical catalogs and mailing them out, but it still represents a faceless, unhelpful customer experience in an era where the customer expects brands to provide service and not just products.

The situation may be considered hopeless, except for one (big) detail: the digital catalogs of online retail today sit on devices where the user’s expectations and abilities are well-known. Beyond paper’s technical limitations, smartphones and tablets  provide exceptional opportunities to engage with a customer in a two-way interaction.

Interactivity Is What Matters

Customer appetite for two-way interaction with retailers is rooted in the bricks and mortar experience. They get to enter an environment where they have input and from their input, the environment effectively changes to fit their needs. From a sales associate recommending products and bringing them different sizes in a change room, the customer in the store gets a very personal experience based on who they are and their motivations and preferences, many of which are expressed explicitly. However, bringing this level of customized interaction to the mobile realm is easier said than executed. Many customer frustrations come from having to adapt to unfamiliar interfaces, unusual user experiences, or hard-to-figure-out user flows on mobile websites. Pair this with short attention spans while using smartphones and the performance and speed challenges often seen on mobile websites and apps and it is easy to understand why so many potential customers abandon their carts before the checkout step.

As many retailers are discovering, true two-way communication goes far deeper than digitizing existing pieces of the business and taking advantage of the bells and whistles available with digital technology. Truly, it requires a mind shift. Imagine if a car driver was asked to pilot a hovercraft — the dynamics and directions are totally different.

The retailers that excel at interactivity and are best placed to take advantage of opportunities on the new frontier of customer experience are ones that boast digital-first teams that have a combination of experienced members along with ‘digital natives.’ In parallel to traditional retailers, these new digital-first teams are surpassing incumbents and setting new standards for customer experience and raising the expectations consumers have for every brand interaction. The truth of digital transformation is that replacing things, or augmenting things, with digital technology, doesn’t go far enough. Success in providing memorable, engaging digital shopping experiences requires a full teardown, to the foundations, and a rebuild. This is risky, resource intensive and hard to execute without extensive recruitment. There are few examples of excellence today for retailers to look to, which means most are continuing to fail to deliver experiences that meet and exceed what their customers are looking for.

The Way Forward

Where does this leave retailers? Simply, in a position to take action. No customer will wait for deliberation or ambivalence or a protracted learning curve. Retailers that find the path to creating unique, new digital brand experiences will win. Retailers that create experiences that are ‘better than Uber’ or ‘like the Airbnb of clothes’ will outshine competitors and earn customer loyalty. Teams that just iterate on what they already have and look for incremental improvements may grow, but their growth will slow and they’ll forever be investing large amounts of resources in the diminishing returns of optimization.

The solution lies in a multi-faceted approach. Incorporating digital natives into teams is core to solving this problem, so too is using technology that is light and allows rapid changes to mobile websites and apps. Gone are the days when an update once every six months pushed to the app store was acceptable. Website updates that take months, not weeks to roll out, are slowing teams down when they need to iterate quickly. Further to these pieces, retailers need to recognize that knowing their customer and their customer’s other habits is now key to their success. No longer is it about product and product alone, it is about experience and service.  Where simply providing access to products on mobile devices was previously acceptable, customers now are looking for experiences with brands on mobile devices. Brands that offer engaging, integrated digital experiences threaded throughout the shopping journey will be the ones that see their growth continue to accelerate. Offering a customer a way to discover products by photographing their favorite shirt, for example, or giving a customer a way to use a more natural, human mode of search (‘I need a dress to go out in’ vs ‘white dresses’) are only a couple of ways that users could engage more deeply through their mobile devices. To date, the surface has barely been scratched.

A print catalog worked in 1985 because it was all we had and a digital catalog may have been fine a few years ago, but the paradigm has shifted. The question is how long will it take traditional retailers and their teams to shift their thinking to embrace it?


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