The death of the product catalog

OK – The title’s a bit tongue in cheek.  We're never going to lose the traditional product catalog, with categories, filters & product summary grids.  That's the go-to experience for customers that know what they want, that are comparing one product against another in a known category.  That type of shopping will never go away. 

There is, however, a different type of shopping.  One that is experience based. So many product and service purchases today occur at the end of a customer journey that is based more on the customer's expected experience with the product or service then based on the specific attributes of the product or service.

Home furnishing companies are spending more on single room photo shoots with product placed contextually based on the room. It seems logical, that you would shop for a living room set by looking at the products in the setting of a finish living room; not as individual products in the catalog.  Seeing a bundle of curated products that align with a desired experience helps the customer imagine what it would be like if they had the products in their living room.

Fashion brands have been leaders in their ability to segment their customers on specific consumer behavior and demographic characteristics.  Many have been able to use that rich customer data to dynamically curate product recommendations based on the personal characteristics of the customer.  Take TopShop, a UK fashion retailer.  They offer a fashion quiz to new visitors, where they collect information on shape & fit and style & trends preferences.  Those attributes are appended to the customer profile and used to provide personalized recommendations. 

This contextual presentation of products creates new challenges or opportunities for merchandisers. Systems that have content model sophistication combined with presentation flexibility will provide merchandisers with a competitive advantage against their peers that are making do with legacy product presentation functionality.

Sitecore experience management & eCommerce

So, how do Sitecore customers add experience driven shopping to their eCommerce properties?  It starts with strategy and mapping the customer and the customer journey.  Think about segment type groupings.

  • Geographic:  Segment based on country region, state or possibly down to the zip code (for retailers)
  • Demographic:  Markers like age, gender, nationality, income level, occupation
  • Psychographic:  Markers like interests, stated preferences, personal values & self-referenced perceptions
  • Buyer behavior:  Prior order history insights, like product types, frequency & average order value

The psychographic markers are often the most difficult to capture, because they can be subjective.  Persona development and user journey workshops are typically used to uncover these insights.  All segmentation attributes end up residing in the xDB.  If it’s not in the xDB, we can’t use it to drive personalization.  Some of these attributes will use Sitecore’s profiles and profile keys.  Others may warrant the extension of the xDB with custom facets that are specific to your customer. 

Once our customer is profiled, we need to design an attribute driven product catalog framework.  You can think about this as the integration of your product catalog with your enterprise content model.  Many retailers and consumer brands have not extended their product catalog with classification data beyond traditional categorization and attributes necessary for configuration.  The alignment of customer-centric attributes within the product catalog is new territory for many, and it’s the key to dynamically delivered personalization.   

Any commerce system that uses Sitecore Commerce Connect surfaces product catalog within Sitecore as a Sitecore item.  That’s what drives the integration of your product catalog with your enterprise content model.  Or, in Sitecore terms, extending the product data templates with the customer-centric attributes.  Commerce Connect also makes possible the use of engagement activities, such as tracking page events and goals, acting on conditional rendering rules, and following up on engagement automation (EA) plans, actions, and conditions.

Once the foundation is in place…

Start small.  Let’s begin by hand curating offering bundles based on what we think our customers value.  We’ll do that by testing, listening (digitally) and iterating.  If it’s not in place, we need to build a culture of mining for insights from our analytics.  As we mature we’ll find that we can increase both the breadth (offering coverage across your personas) and depth (degree of personalization that we’re able to get to).    

The future.  As we (and our industry) mature, we’ll spend less time hand building offering bundles and more time optimizing machine learning algorithms.  The foundational elements we’ve outlined above coupled with a set of well-defined desired outcomes are necessary inputs for a future state of predictive merchandising. 

Shameless plug:  We’ve spent much of 2016 working inside Sitecore Commerce.  If you need help with an approach for experience based merchandising, we’d be happy to chat