Supply: Retailers continue to struggle with effective online search

With more retail sales gravitating online over the past two years, many retailers remain woefully behind, according to a new report from Coleman Parkes Research on behalf of tech firm Algolia.

Surveying 900 retail executives with well-established e-commerce platforms, the report found that more than half of the retailers surveyed were stuck in 2010 when it came to digital search capabilities. When the pandemic hit in 2020 and the surge in online orders began, 65% of retailers were unable to meet demand, the report said. And 40% said they were still unprepared to meet a significant increase in consumer demand two years into the pandemic.

“The retail industry and digital commerce have evolved rapidly since the COVID-19 outbreak – more than at any time in the previous decade. Yet online conversion rates have remained relatively stable “, says the report.

Leaders from Walmart, Target and HEB said that in 2020 and early 2021, digital commerce has seen 10 years of growth, a pace that no one could have anticipated or adequately prepared for. Retailers have responded by pouring millions of dollars into improving or expanding digital capabilities. The report found that 46% of digital commerce retailers said they underinvested in search capabilities, as much of the investment went into fulfillment, labor, pickup curbside and delivery.

Digital search technologies have evolved over the past decade and what was once considered futuristic is now readily available to retailers of all sizes. Algolia reports that only one in eight retailers are adopting current research to gain a competitive advantage. The report states that the remaining 87% of respondents who possess basic or intermediate search capabilities also experience a higher level of empty carts and non-commercial conversions.

Algolia said a basic search is used by 33% of retail respondents. This is only used as a transaction for users to find exactly what they are looking for. The user interface is only a search box or a search bar. The report found that more than half (54%) of respondents use intermediate search capabilities, allowing shoppers to find what they’re looking for and discover items through navigation and advanced features. Only 13% used advanced search to predict shoppers’ needs for personalization and recommendations. The group can then buy goods using analytics while interfacing with voice search or visual search.

Half of retailers (53%) said their search optimization delivers relevant results even if users make misspellings or use plurals of synonyms. The report also found that 44% of retailers offer users “as you type” features to update search results with every keystroke. Additionally, 42% said their systems allow users to search all content sources such as product catalogs, blogs, e-commerce only inventory, and store inventory.

The report found that 38% of retailers used personalization to promote higher margin products or more popular items. Again, 36% said their search involved personalized results based on user preferences and behavior. Only 26% said they leverage AI from user behaviors and automatically suggest appropriate options.

Jon Allen, founder and CEO of Rogers-based Woodridge Group, said using advanced search and personalization is worth the extra investment for brands selling online.

“We’ve seen a more than 300% increase in traffic to product pages by optimizing for search and answering the most frequently asked questions from shoppers, pulled from product opinion reports. Shopping today usually starts online. Improving the shopping experience at this very early stage can lead to increased visitor traffic, higher conversion rates, and improved brand reputation,” Allen said.

He said personalized search results are more accurate and relevant to the particular shopper, saving him time in the research process. Allen said good search relevance and accuracy increases speed and improves customer experience, which drives revenue for brands and retailers.

“Personalization is about truly understanding your customer and their needs. We do this by using analytics to understand buyer sentiment, so we’re better equipped to address their questions and concerns about a product before they even ask. Personalization is a feature that helps bridge the gap between what customers expect and what brands and retailers offer,” Allen said.

Eric Howerton, Founder and Chief Growth Officer of SKU Ninja-WhyteSpyder at Rogers, has been preaching the power and importance of search for nearly a decade. He said the search itself continues to evolve and is constantly improving for the end buyer.

“The easier a shopper can find what they’re looking for in the first query, the more likely they are to become a loyal customer,” he said.

Howerton said optimized search will become a much bigger business, and brands and retailers need to step up their investments or risk being left behind. He said Amazon had a huge head start. Yet, Walmart continues to invest and even requires vendors to provide richer, more accurate, and improved item content that will help improve product searches.

“Brands have all the rich details of the products they make, and it’s up to them to share the content with their distribution partners to better enrich search results. It all comes down to content. Bots need to be fed rich information to be able to generate the most relevant search results for shoppers,” Howerton said.

He said supplier brands need to do more heavy lifting and continuous product catalog audits to ensure that all attributes of an item are in the item setup and product page.

“In 2015, it was enough to have 10 columns of information about each product in a spreadsheet. Now, suppliers need around 100 columns if they want to become more advanced and relevant in buyers’ search queries,” Howerton said.

He said there has never been a better time for brands to optimize product content. He said business partners would welcome the move because they know how vital better search is to long-term sales growth.

“Walmart is ahead of its vendors in terms of the work it does to improve online search, and it will be important for brands to help close the gap. It will take retailers and vendors working together to improve search. as more and more sales move online for all categories,” Howerton said.

According to Forrester Research, 43% of shoppers on merchant sites go directly to the search bar. This makes the search bar a prime place for retailers to execute merchandising strategy, promote the latest deals, or optimize the sale of products with higher margins. Forrester said only 38% of retailers can market and optimize results using search.

Editor’s note: The side section offers of Talk Business & Politics focuses on the businesses, organizations, issues and individuals engaged in providing products and services to retailers. The Supply Side is managed by Talk Business & Politics and sponsored by Propak logistics.

Amanda J. Marsh