Back in the early days of ecommerce, using the search function of an online store was long-winded and unpredictable. Retailers and their developers had to design systems that could cope with spelling mistakes and ambiguous searches and slowly but surely, we began to embrace that all-powerful search box and trust the results it provided. As time has gone on, and data volumes have grown along with technology, we’ve been able to segment the results, grouping them by format, or by date, or by colour

This topic formed the basis of the Power of Search breakfast panel debate, which we hosted earlier this week in London. I sat on the panel with a number of industry experts that included Tony Duffy (Oddbins), Peter Owlett (Capgemini), Mark Harwood (Elasticsearch) and Chris Harris (Hortonworks) who shared their thoughts on how the ecommerce sector can improve the customer experience.

The discussion kicked off with panelists being asked: “Are ecommerce sites missing a trick, or is it simply impossible to design search systems that will please everyone?”

Ecommerce search technology hasn’t really moved on in the last 15 years and there is much more opportunity for retailers to give shoppers ideas and inspiration, offering recommendations based on a lifetime of transactions, not just recent ones. Consumers have moved on, but ecommerce is struggling to keep up.

The use of poor search technology is not caused by cost anymore. Expensive, early search technologies have long since been surpassed and costs driven down – to zero in some cases – as open-source communities have made it easier to try things out for free. Technology can now make suggestions appropriate to each and every user and the internet is filled with communities to whom ecommerce retailers (or at least their IT departments) can turn to for help.

However, it’s crucial that retailers avoid creating silos within their organisation and keep the data supply chain flowing. There is the obvious obstacle of IT sitting apart from business units like marketing, but the challenges actually run far deeper than that alone. Transactional processing, analytics and bricks and mortar IT live in separate teams and if they are not talking to each other effectively then the online store won’t be serving customers as well as it could. This is one of the reasons why according to a recent survey from Rackspace, almost half (45%) of UK consumers actually prefer to shop on the high street instead of online.

One of the main frustrations online shoppers experience is the unhelpful suggestions that websites offer. Big data gives retailers the chance to go beyond offering consumers a product for a cheaper price than they would get on the high street – now they can inspire them by offering helpful suggestions that tie in closely with their shopping habits. For example, if you have just bought a £500 guitar, chances are that you will receive a suggestion showing you a slightly different one. The problem is, for most of us a £500 guitar would be a once in a lifetime purchase so offering the customer an amplifier or guitar strings would probably be more effective. This just goes to show that data isn’t being used as effectively as it could be. The lesson here for the C-Suite is that they should look back at their own data supply chain and their internal approach to information sharing to make sure its full potential is realised.

Specialist retailers like Oddbins face a slightly different set of search and data challenges. There’s not much chance of them competing with the supermarket giants on search for general terms like ‘red wine’, so the advice from the panel is to focus on unique ways to engage customers.

One way they could do this is via mobile. An IBM report recently suggested that nearly half (47 percent) of the UK’s e-commerce transactions on Black Friday originated from mobile devices. How does mobile change the expectations around search? And how can retailers ensure a good mobile service despite sometimes unreliable 3G and 4G service? Consumers have less patience on mobile – we are conditioned not to accept delays – but yet it is the fastest-growing platform. Very few interact with retailers on just one platform any more – searching on mobile and completing purchases on a laptop for instance, or showrooming in stores have become common practice.

But after tracking cookies and tapping into purchase histories, what’s the line between quietly joining the dots to delight the consumer… and being creepy? With privacy concerns at an all-time high, the consensus is that most people are happy to share their data with companies if they have confidence that the organisation can be trusted. Dynamic selling is nothing new – Tesco have been doing it for years with their Clubcard scheme, but dynamic pricing – selling higher-priced hotel rooms to Mac users for example – is a dangerous game, especially in today’s social world. People will pay what they think something is worth but companies should tread carefully. For example, with mobile he thinks that while it’s growing exponentially, tracking a user’s movements through their mobile is something that few people will embrace.

Ultimately, brands should draw the line for themselves and make decisions about consumer data based on their values whilst closely monitoring customer feedback and making any necessary adjustments. As far as using big data and improving search to tempt consumers away from the high street, the onus is on retailers to bring a spark of innovation into their business whilst retaining the oldest retail value of creating a helpful and easy experience for customers.

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