At eTail, the customer is always first

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It seems like the customer experience is an unavoidable issue in multichannel retailing these days. It should be no different at the eTail 2007 conference Feb. 13-16 at J.W. Marriott Desert Springs in Palm Desert, CA.
In conversations with several of the show's exhibitors, "the customer experience" was one topic they all predicted would be on attendees' minds.
"Market pressures demand that the customer experience online continue to get better," said Gavin Finn, president/CEO of Kaon Interactive, Maynard, MA. Kaon, which creates photo-realistic 3-D models of products for e-commerce, will be a first-time exhibitor at eTail.
The online playing field has leveled between early movers and traditional retailers, which means "everyone is challenged with finding ways to create customer loyalty because there is a plethora of outlets to purchase from," Mr. Finn said. In this environment, creating positive customer experiences at every point along the way becomes essential.
Mr. Finn predicts that retailers will use the online channel for testing and innovating the customer experience - such as how they differentiate merchandise and keep customers loyal and excited - and then bring what they learn offline.
Using Web 2.0 technology to create rich Internet interfaces will be another topic of discussion, said Phil Braden, director of customer-facing solutions for Endeca, Cambridge, MA. Such dressed-up interfaces "are top of mind with a lot of our customers these days," he said.
Retailers also are looking at how to use proprietary content to enrich the customer experience while differentiating themselves from the competition, Mr. Braden said. He cited Home Depot's do-it-yourself tutorials and Walgreens' health-related information as examples of this strategy. Categorizing user-generated content such as product reviews in ways that are meaningful to shoppers is another.
"Being able to promote highly rated products is effective in driving conversions," Mr. Braden said.
Kelly O'Neill, commerce product marketing manager for ATG, Cambridge, said marketers are looking at how to leverage consumer-generated content and wondering whether its relationship with commerce is direct or indirect.
Another hot topic will be how to incorporate the contact center into the multichannel customer experience in more meaningful ways, Ms. O'Neill said. Retailers are trying to figure out how the contact center can be a core piece of their strategy. The idea is to "make sure [contact center staff are] informed so they can reach out to customers in a way that makes sense and is appropriate."
Retailers also are wondering how search engine optimization and search engine marketing affect the customer experience.
"The ongoing convergence of search, merchandising and analytics and how to leverage it" is a major issue, Ms. O'Neill said.
Endeca is working with retailers to reduce "bounce," the practice of consumers clicking on a Web site after doing a search and then immediately returning to the search engine because they didn't find what they were looking for.
"Rather than take them to the home page, deep-link them to a page that is relevant to their search," Mr. Braden said.
Exhibitors expect to see more multichannel merchants, mid-market and smaller retailers than in previous years.
"We expect to get to meet a lot more companies that we've never met before that are starting to come into their own in the e-commerce space," he said.
Adding several focused tracks at the end of the show is a good step, Ms. O'Neill said. On Feb. 16, eTail will hold Post-Day Forums on Personalization & Segmentation, Merchandising & Visualization and Events Marketing/Holiday Knowledge.
"People are looking for ways to have that conversation at a deeper level," she said. "Some of the breakout groups enable that."

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