Collaborative Shopping: An Interactive ExperienceIn just five years, e-mail has evolved from an interesting utility to a core function in personal and business interaction. A newer phenomenon -- Web messaging, which permits real-time communication -- is bringing e-commerce to the next logical level.
Today, online shopping is more similar to catalog shopping than to shopping in a store; it is the quality of Web page presentation that drives online sales. Great content can help close a sale, but it is the ability to handle special questions that creates lifetime value. Emerging technologies that enable e-commerce companies to provide real-time customer service -- make that customer collaboration -- will set a new standard.
To be sure, the immediacy that Web messaging offers is not always necessary for successful commerce. Online shopping has its benefits, such as privacy -- a person may prefer to keep medical conditions or clothing sizes to himself, for example.
There are also times when shoppers need no help making decisions about products. But if a product is complex, requiring serious consideration because of features, price or usage, a shopper may wish to turn to third parties, such as friends, sales personnel and manufacturing representatives, to help in the decision-making process.
As Internet commerce evolves, sophisticated software will enable online customer collaboration scenarios as valuable as those available to offline shoppers.
Catalog retailers have already deployed basic collaborative sites, with more expected to roll out in the coming months. Early findings show productivity gains for call centers where call center personnel can deal with four shoppers simultaneously through online chat.
In its most advanced case, online shopping will evolve into a concierge and personal shopping service, where shoppers will have access to individuals who have a personal history with them.
Through collaborative shopping techniques, an agent can direct customers to the merchandise they seek, offer informed, individualized advice or even help them navigate the Web site.
Collaborative shopping software will permit remote browsers to be linked, allowing users and agents to browse a site simultaneously. As they go from page to page within the site, shoppers can ask questions of the agent or take control of the linked browsers and lead the way.
For complex product categories, such as consumer electronics, shoppers may seek more than the advice of a Web store agent. Customer collaboration software permits users to shop with their stereo buff friends or while consulting a representative of the electronics manufacturer that provides enhanced customer service for the Web site.
Look to see more manufacturers offering shopper collaboration capabilities within retailers' sites, which will give customers the best access to product experts on the manufacturing side.
Collaborative techniques also allow input from the most important arbiters of your shopping decisions -- your friends and family. For many people, shopping is often an opportunity to socialize.
To that end, multiple users -- whether they are in the same neighborhood or 1,000 miles apart -- can go on virtual excursions through a site as though it were a mall, taking turns leading the browsing and chatting at the same time. The personal shopper can be left out of the equation altogether.
Customer collaboration software also has benefits for business-to-business. A retail buyer in New York and a fashion house representative in Atlanta can go online together and review new and existing products to support new product buys. A soft goods supplier can "meet" online with a single client, multiple clients, or even with clients and a representative of a manufacturer to determine supply-chain needs for the coming year.
Collaboration can bring a large measure of efficiency to the purchasing process, since the parties impacted by purchasing decisions can make synchronized decisions as a group. These collaborative approaches will most likely also support supply-chain collaboration activities such as collaborative planning, forecasting and replenishment.
Technologies that support customer collaboration, an extension of a new class of software known as customer interaction systems, are designed to support the two-way communication between the firm and the customer.
Implementing this technology will require an investment in a system, but it also will drive the need to develop new content and train customer-facing personnel. Response times for online shoppers by type of shopper need to be closely watched as service levels are established. The flexibility of the Web, coupled with the entrepreneurial creativity of retailers, will probably mean you will see many new innovative service offerings.
Retailers also should track customer expectations relating to collaborative shopping within each merchandise category. If collaboration becomes an expectation, then these activities just become part of the cost of doing business.
The business of having a low-cost service infrastructure is driving the entire industry to examine packaged applications that deliver a lower cost of ownership. Much as customers let the nature of the product dictate the effort they put into their purchases, an enterprise should let the products it sells dictate the most effective collaborative shopping service it can provide to its customers.
In many bricks-and-mortar outlets today, customers ignore lethargic sales help whom they consider to be largely irrelevant. If this happens online, it is easier to avoid a Web site that did not provide good customer service than a store that one sees on each trip to the mall. On the other hand, if a customer's initial experience with collaborative shopping is positive, a lasting bond may be forged.
By empowering consumers with information in real time, by guiding and validating their choices, and by making the shopping experience more personal, efficient and pleasant, collaborative shopping has enormous potential to increase conversion rates and create loyal return customers for online enterprises.
• Vahe Katros is director of retail applications at Blue Martini, San Mateo, CA. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.