Saturday, 19 September 2015

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Brands Abused on Retailers’ Websites

"I am afraid, Watson, that I shall have to go," said Holmes, as we sat down together to our breakfast one morning.

“Go! Where to?”

 “To Dartmoor; to King's Pyland.”

“Then you will certainly need a new suitcase,” I replied.

“By Jove, Watson, you’re right. Here, take my tablet and search online for one. I have some small tasks I need to do in town before we depart for Dartmoor”.

And so I began my research. It soon seemed to me, however, that this was no easy matter. It was straightforward enough to locate the suitcase category on some retailers’ websites. But beyond there, the suitcases started to spin in front of me. No sooner had I focussed on one, than another, often apparently unrelated to the first, was suggested to me. In short, I was little further forward when Holmes burst back in through the door.

“I have solved the suitcase, Watson!” he cried. “Samsonite, red, 55cm, 4 wheels. The problem was a simple one.”

I was forced to confess that my surfing had not been so fruitful. As I stated to Holmes, I began my browsing on the John Lewis site.

“But the brand you chose yourself was not even proposed to me on this website,” I asserted firmly.

“Ah, Watson,” chuckled Holmes indulgently. “You see, but you do not observe! Surely it must have been obvious to you that you should have used this very small scroll bar lurking in the brand filter, scrolled down to those brands hidden beneath the filter mini-fold, and then, deducing that those small numbers in brackets represented the size of the range and remembering all the similar bracketed numbers higher up the list but now invisible after you scrolled down, observed that Samsonite, although ranked only as the 13th brand on the overall list due to alphabetic ordering, had the largest number of products on offer?”

I admitted that it had not, and that finding the brand-selection on this site somewhat dispiriting, I had instead proceeded to House of Fraser. There, however, I encountered a quite different problem.

“No sooner had I focussed on one brand,” I complained, “then the website tried to steer me to another.”

The smile faded from Holmes’ face. He took back the tablet, and tapped the screen repeatedly. His countenance took on a grim aspect.

“Here, Watson”, he said, showing me some photographs he had taken earlier, “is how the brands are displayed in the House of Fraser store.”

“Observe how every brand has its own display area in the store, with the product attractively merchandised to attract potential shoppers.”

 “See here, for example, how even a quite minor brand can win a place in the sun by being well-presented in the store.”

“And yet on these websites, any customer who pauses to look at one of their products is immediately steered towards a competitor.”

I felt a thrill of horror pass through me. “What is it, Holmes? What terrible monster is merchandising so beautifully in store, and yet abusing these respected brands online in this fashion?” I whispered.

“Indeed, in the age of the ROPO customer, it is doubly dreadful!” he responded.


“Research Online Purchase Offline. Some estimates put the percentage of in-store customers who behave this way as high as 87%,” he replied.

“There is one final test to perform,” he resumed. “Let us undertake this merchandising benchmarking scorecard.”

We entered our details into it, answered some few dozen multiple-choice questions, and studied the results together. My eye was immediately drawn to the headline percentage score, which did not seem so bad to me, but Holmes’ quicker intelligence was already scrutinising the detailed results further down the page.

“It’s as I thought,” he cried. “This benchmark is the final proof I was seeking.”

“What then is it, Holmes? What is the monster?”

“It is a feral recommendation-engine,” he replied sombrely. “When trained and regularly monitored, they help retailers to drive sales. But if allowed to run wild and unchecked, they become abusive and dangerous, obsessed with cross-selling brands over to their competitors.”

I must have look confused, for he continued, “the brand on retailer merchandising benchmark enumerates 16 different ways in which merchandising on retailers’ websites can be harmful to brands. Wild recommendation-engines are merely one such, albeit one of the most dangerous. Others include weak search-indexing, low category ranking, unmoderated reviews, inaccurate product descriptions, lousy photography…”

“What, then, would you advise brands to do?” I interrupted, as an understanding of the problem began to dawn on me.

“Elementary, my dear Watson! Just take as much interest in the merchandising of their products on retailers’ websites as they do of the merchandising in brick-and-mortar stores. The benchmark is merely a starting point of course, but it can help direct their initial review into the right areas. It’s part of understanding that Digital Transformation for brands needs to go far beyond just online marketing and social networking activities.”

So ended one of the darkest cases of Sherlock Holmes’ illustrious career. And yet, as he said, it proved to be only a beginning, and a long digital transformation struggle lies ahead for many brands to optimise their online partnership with their retailers as well as they have previously done so in-store so many years before. Fortunately, help is at hand.

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