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Leading online merchants are optimizing features to get sales – rethinking promotions, refining search, retooling content/information, and reinventing community – according to merchandising results?from the e-tailing group‘s 11th Annual Mystery Shopping Survey, writes Retailer Daily.

“Smart merchants are taking execution to a higher level; elevating the online shopping experience to provide customers with increased efficiency while fostering retention,” said Lauren Freedman, president of the e-tailing group.

Rethinking promotions in a tough economy

The playbook on promotion must remain imaginative, as price is likely to be a key factor in consumer decision-making, e-tailing group said.

Merchants are creatively rethinking promotional strategies to get the sale immediately, as evidenced by limited-time-only promotions’ jump to 42% penetration (i.e., use by retailers) in 2008 from 18% in 2007.

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The only measurable decrease in the use of promotional strategy was Gift with Purchase, possibly because it is less economical than the other tactics benchmarked, e-tailing group siad.

The use of Online Outlets increased 14 percentage points in penetration. With 86% of merchants now deploying this tactic, a dedicated well-merchandised location to attract price-sensitive shoppers deserves attention.

Free shipping, not surprisingly, remains a promotional standard offered by more merchants in diverse manners that complement their business models, including an increase in conditional free shipping to a store (26% in 2008 vs. 15% in 2007).

Refining search a priority

Putting control in the hands of the customer, merchants are capitalizing on search usage and tools via onsite capabilities–from landing-page sorts to creative ways of finding product.

Keyword search is the standard-bearer, as 100% of the sites surveyed have the feature.

Beyond that, a majority of merchants are implementing in-depth refined search (85%), providing guided navigation (63%), and landing page sorts (77%) in part replacing advanced search (15% vs. 23%) as these newly tracked metrics provide fewer click-throughs to reach the desired product.

Such “in-your-face” merchandising is ideal in tough economic times, as it pinpoints product first, placing it squarely in the front of the consumer for consideration and quick purchase.

Retooling content to augment category, product, and multichannel efforts

A complete set of detailed product information coupled with wise use of rich media gives consumers the confidence to buy, e-tailers are apparently finding.

The use of video and audio increased significantly from 2007 levels, with video penetration up to 62% from 45% in 2007, and use of audio reaching 61% penetration among surveyed e-tailers.

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Customer education is paramount, and here too category-centric content elevates the shopping experience while interactive tools ensure customers make the right choice, according to e-tailing group.

Brands are more apt to play a role in this arena by availing merchants of rich media and in-depth information, e-tailing group said.

Reinventing community

From blogs to boards, the customer is now a true participant in the shopping experience, with the use of community features increasing for all measured tactics:

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“Share” is a new metric in the e-tailing group survey; merchants’ sharing strategies range from the old-fashioned to the new as they test various means throughout their sites.

Anticipate increased usage of sharing as shoppers become more comfortable with sharing and merchants understand the viral power of cost-effective community initiatives, e-tailing group said.

Multi-tactical means multiple options

Best-in-class execution most often combines promotional, informational, and communal messaging, according to e-tailing group.

“From time-savings tools to custom control multi-tactical initiatives go a long way toward brand-building,” Freedman said. “Merchants must facilitate retention experiences as customers who invest time with a brand have a greater likelihood to return. Ultimately customer involvement and interactivity should reinforce differentiation and result in sales.”

About the study: The 11th Annual Mystery Shopping Survey offers a shopper’s-eye view of the shopping experience at 100 online merchants. The study considers 14 consumer categories and the 14 customer-service toolsets that drive merchandising online.

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