We caught up with Tim Ash, CEO of SiteTuners and a contributor to the Monetate blog, to get his input on the merchandising tactics websites must focus on this year in order to stand out from the competition.

Tim Ash, SiteTuners

Tim Ash, SiteTuners

Q: Why is effective merchandising so important for online marketers this year?

A: I think there are two trends that make it particularly important. First, people are getting comfortable spending more money online. Ecommerce sales went up 16% to more than $225 billion dollars last year. Whenever there’s a several hundred billion-dollar industry displaying double-digit growth rates, you know there’s a lot of opportunity.

Second, people are getting more savvy and less forgiving when it comes to ecommerce. Marketers basically have less and less of the visitor’s attention to work with. So if you don’t have that comparison tool they are looking for, or your site search is messed up, or your top level categories don’t immediately make sense, visitors are more likely to immediately leave your website today than they were a few years ago.

If you put those two trends together, you’re looking at huge changes to a fast-growing market. You’re essentially seeing a paradigm shift. The companies that aren’t tearing down their old models and building new ones that adapt to things like best practices for ecommerce, or testing online, or newer approaches to analytics and usability, are becoming relics.

Q: What are the biggest merchandising challenges companies must be prepared to deal with?

A: Companies are dealing with presentation today, and that’s going to be even more important going forward.

But let me step back a bit and explain what I mean by presentation. If you were running an online business in 2003, you probably had the same content across the world, or minimal variations. The screens accessing your content were largely the same. Everyone accessed your content using a mouse or a trackpad.

Now step forward 10 years later. Your visitors expect your content to be specific to them—they expect language and product availability to adapt, and if they give you more personalization details, they expect you to deliver content that’s relevant to those needs.

The screens accessing your content not only vary in terms of operating systems, screen sizes, and browsers, they also vary by device and input modality. You need to serve viable content to a person who is doing heavy-duty comparisons on a Windows desktop, as well as someone using an iPhone to compare two price points quickly, and the customer experience has to be good for both. You have to deal with the mouse, the touch screen, Java availability, cookie restrictions in Europe, and a host of other rules.

The companies who get personalization and presentation right are going to win, and everyone needs to gear up for that race now.

Q: What’s the one step companies must take now when it comes to merchandising?

A: If pressed for just one thing, it’s that companies need to figure out where the top failure exists, and fix it.

The biggest failure could be not understanding that psychological barriers can get in the way of a sale, in which case visitors could be finding a lot of pages on the website, but the sales funnel page bounce rates are through the roof. The solution would be to understand and utilize persuasion, trust factors, and making the clicks “easy” rather than “few.”

The biggest failure could be getting visitors to the product page, in which case the homepage could be receiving a lot of attention, but people only navigate to the category pages. Reducing the number of top level categories and improving site search will be the next steps to fix that.

The biggest failure could be having 50% of the traffic coming from touch devices, and not optimizing for those visitors. The fix would be either a mobile version of the website, or using responsive design.

There’s always something. The worst usability or conversion problem is usually easy to spot. But the one thing companies need to do, the one step they must take, is to figure out where the biggest problem is and attack it head on.

Q: Which companies are using their websites to merchandise products the most effectively?

A: There are players that perform well for certain tasks; Amazon has a nice search experience, for example. But in general, there are no players that receive an “A” across the board. If anything, on the whole, ecommerce grades would be around a “D” right now.

That sounds like a bad thing, but it’s really not. It just means that you shouldn’t benchmark against what’s on the field today. Instead, you should be running tests on things that make sense for your market and your customers. More importantly, that means there are double-digit gains to be had in just about every ecommerce category today.