Why Customers Struggle To Find What They Need With E-Commerce

Bernadette Nixon, CEO at Algolia, is an entrepreneurial & driven CEO with a strong track record of growing and scaling global businesses.  

The holiday season is filled with good cheer, a gathering of family and friends and the chance to exchange gifts. In an age when many consumers use the web as a significant or primary shopping source, the way we navigate online stores should not be as haphazard as a last-minute dash on the eve before a holiday — but often is.

Many of the behaviors repeatedly played out by online shoppers stem from human nature that has yet to become accustomed to efficiencies of modern search and personalization.

Don’t Use A TV Remote As A Hammer

In a survey conducted by my company of 1,000 U.S.-based consumers over 18 years of age, more than half (52%) of respondents admitted that they use a retailer’s cart as a way to bookmark items as they search other sites. Looking at the same activity among the millennial and Gen Z cohorts, these numbers jump to 63% and 60% respectively.

This is not an example of intelligent, personalized custom-sorted search. Rather, it’s as intuitive as using a television remote control to bash a nail in — the right tool used for the wrong job.

Consumers spend hours on the internet, using connected services and applications every day. Being able to navigate between different systems quickly with secured, saved user preferences should be a given, but it’s often not. Modern web shopping needs to offer as-you-type autocomplete functionality. It needs to be able to handle search requests where shoppers have used synonyms or unstructured voice-based search requests, and the items need to be in stock, otherwise don’t show them.

This is how easy modern search should be, but often isn’t. As a result, people exhibit quirky behavior designed to circumnavigate the missing intelligence.

The Christmas Cookie Crumbles

Google confirmed that it will get rid of third-party cookies in its Chrome browser by 2023 (a year or so later than originally planned), meaning retailers are going to have to be smarter when it comes to getting ranked in search results and online product lists. There’s an opportunity to educate consumers on the usefulness of data collection and cookies to personalize their shopping experience. However, doing this will require overcoming common misconceptions.

According to a U.K. YouGov survey, many people think their smart devices are listening to them. Around 66% of the respondents claimed to receive an advert for a product on their phone, a short while after discussing it. This aligns with our survey data that shows nearly half of respondents (46%) believe their smart devices listen to them and nearly half (46%) also believe that retailers track the entirety of their internet activity.

Because things have been “relatively workable” and the web has proved to be “adequately navigable,” shoppers haven’t worried and have put blind faith in device tracking, which doesn’t exist for the most part. In a future without cookies, but with more demanding shoppers, this is not a good combination. Add in product shortages, and we have a perfect storm.

Avoiding Customer Churn And Creating Conversions 

Global supply chain issues have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and consumers are feeling the impact. Why is this an issue for retailers?

When confronted with selecting an out-of-stock item on a company’s site, 48% of respondents to our survey noted they will go to another website, 21% will look for a similar product on the same website and only 14% will come back to the site later.

Customer churn and shopper burnout needs to be addressed. Educating consumers on the reasons for shortages can build trust and loyalty for coming back to a site when an item is estimated to be back in stock. Incentivizing customers to pay now and wait for an item to be available through discounts or other customer rewards is also a popular tactic. Most importantly, supply chain disruption should be viewed as a golden opportunity for offering more personalized, conscientiously tuned and AI-enriched search to capture online shoppers in the moment “inside the store” and avoid customer churn.

Advanced search practices involve the ability to offer voice and visual-based search with AI-based image recognition. It can incorporate analytics-based merchandising and A/B test relevance, where test case users are shown two different webpage layouts to assess which creates the most impact for positive business metrics.

Online retailers need to get their heads out of 2010. That’s not meant to be a disparaging statement, but there is simply too little intelligence being applied at the user search level. This gap has a knock-on effect on supply chain management, which can cause greater problems.

Solidifying The Shopping Experience

According to Baymard Institute, for every 100 potential customers, 70 online shopping carts are abandoned without purchasing. This tactic is common among millennials (42%) and Gen Z shoppers (42%). Cart abandonment causes online businesses a great deal of pain, however, as Shopify notes, there are multiple reasons why people abandon their carts and what online retailers can do about it. Armed with this knowledge, you’re one step closer to converting browsers into customers.

Cart abandonment is highest in December. Black Friday and holiday sales mean more people are shopping (hence the increase in cart abandonment).

When user experiences are positive and shoppers can find the products and services they want quickly, conversions are maximized, which is why advanced search intelligence can help counter this trend.

However, sophisticated advanced search is not a “set it and forget it” technology. Retailers need to iterate upon their installed capabilities this holiday period for the seasonal peaks and troughs ahead. Not only are there market shifts and supply chain fluctuations, customer preferences and tastes continually change. Marketing rules need to evolve and develop in-line with these cycles as well.

Every holiday season comes with challenges, but also opportunities. We’re seeing a continuation of the pandemic-era trend of increased online shopping, making the customer’s experience with search and discovery more important than ever. Retailers who prioritize their website optimization will cheer “ho, ho, ho” instead of muttering “ho, ho, oh no!”

Forbes Technology Council is an invitation-only community for world-class CIOs, CTOs and technology executives. Do I qualify?