Ecommerce’s Next Chapter: Building Meaningful, Long-Term Relationships with Customers

By Jason Trevisan, Partner, Polaris Partners

Believe it or not, but ecommerce has been around now for fifteen years.  It’s hard to forget the early days, especially the naïve ecommerce company Super Bowl commercials that failed to win over consumers for the long-term.  Who can forget Pet.com’s If you leave me now?  Hilarious, but it didn’t change the world for the company.

Over this period of time, ecommerce companies have evolved their approach to consumers in many important ways—generating at least short-term success, if not repeat customers.  But there is still a lot of room left to build more enduring bonds between online companies and consumers.  I’ll get to my thoughts on that in a moment.

You Can Get Whatever You Want

Let’s first take a look at early ecommerce company strategies to build relationships with consumers—things that most of us have experienced in some fashion.

During ecommerce web 1.0, price comparison and vast selection were the disruptive hallmarks of online vs. offline (Amazon) shopping, and marketplaces emerged that enabled many-to-many commerce (eBay)—making virtually anything buyable.  Today, who doesn’t drive to a store, touch a product, and then go online to buy it from the least expensive source.

Easy customization (Art.com) expanded customer appetite as consumers could finally get exactly what they wanted, and basic (CafePress) or more time consuming (Blurb) personalization created a world of product creators.  And crowd sourcing (Threadless) empowered users to become merchandisers and have a stronger emotional tie to products.  All great ideas and approaches.

Layered on top of these functions and delivery methods was collaborative filtering – people who bought this also bought this – which quickly became the ultimate cross-selling tool.

You Don’t Need This, But Get It Now Or You’ll Miss Out

But online shopping still wasn’t fun and it hadn’t touched services.  Thus began ecommerce web 2.0.

Companies found that product anticipation and snarky editorial (Woot) made for a more fun buying experience, and other aggregation models actually delivered value to the customer by positioning individuals into wholesale-like accounts.  User reviews increased product transparency and quality, and on-site community (bodybuilding.com) features allowed both satisfied and, more often, dissatisfied customers to speak to one another.

The daily deal created a tidal wave that brought many of these elements (cute editorial, customer aggregation) to local services causing a boon in manicures and massages.  And flash sales (Gilt) created even more urgency than daily deals by applying limited quantity to end-of-season fashion shown with beautiful photography.

Your Personal Shopper

But creating meaningful, long-term relationships with consumers remains a big challenge for most ecommerce companies.  Think Starbucks coffee drinkers.  Think car brand loyalty in families.  The online world has had trouble creating this kind of bond with their customers.

Rachel Zoe joins Brian Lee's ShoeDazzle as Chief Stylist

Rachel Zoe joins Brian Lee’s ShoeDazzle as Chief Stylist

But this might happen now in ecommerce web 3.0 with the latest big innovation: curation.

Curation results in personalized recommendations based not on what others like you had bought, but rather what fits your specific style given what is currently on trend.

The pioneer in curation is Shoedazzle (a Polaris company), which offers the latest trends in women’s fashion at affordable prices. Their model tells customers, based on individual style, what is the hot trend that they should want and will make them look and feel the best.  Shoedazzle has become your personal shopper, that enviously fashionable individual who will find the designs that will take your style and make it even better.

Doing this at scale requires technology but more importantly a truly expert style eye that can bridge specific tastes to the still-emerging fashion trend.  The second part is the harder one.

Shoedazzle’s recent announcement that noted designer Rachel Zoe has joined the company as chief stylist bridges this gap in an unprecedented way.  When polled, Shoedazzle customers identified Rachel by an extraordinarily wide margin as the person whose style expertise most influences them.  Now the company not only has a robust style profile on every user but it will put that in the hands of one of the leading style eyes to select fashions for their customer profiles.

Shoedazzle also made exciting improvements to the social features of its site—launched just yesterday.  Shopping is a social experience and Shoedazzle is breaking ground by allowing customers to see their friends’ styles and to get input from peers on purchases.

They also announced the inclusion of other brands to customers’ showrooms.  By opening up their platform to include other brands, Shoedazzle will have a wider array of designs to more precisely fit each customer’s style.  At the same time, the company has ensured that all of the items in a customer’s showroom are within reach to avoid the boutique experience of “honestly this shoe looks the best on you but unfortunately it’s $1,500”.

Shoedazzle has always listened to its customers’ tastes and demands, which is allowing them to lead the ecommerce web 3.0 curation experience model.  It will be exciting to watch them forge even stronger bonds with customers, and to see greater adoption of the curation model across other ecommerce businesses.



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