Numbers can (and do) lie.

Regularly.

This story first appeared in the July 21, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

That’s according to Martin Bartle, the London-based e-commerce veteran, luxury marketing and online retail consultant, and director, global communications and e-commerce, at the lingerie brand Agent Provocateur.

Bartle focused on the minefield involved in analyzing e-commerce numbers in a talk called “Bad Maths: The Curse of E-commerce.” It should be a simple equation, he said: “How much traffic do you have? What’s the conversion rate? What are the sales?” If a brand can make those three numbers work, then why can business often be so challenging?

He stressed the importance of counterintuitive thinking when analyzing the results of an e-commerce operation, and pointed to Simpson’s Paradox, in which a trend that appears in different groups of data actually disappears when those groups are combined.

Bartle kicked off with a non-digital example. “When you are looking for a heart surgeon in this country,” he said, you want to find the one with the highest death rate. “Why? Because the best doctors in the country treat the worst cases. So you want to go to the doctor with the worst results.”

He pointed to the disparity between the large amount of traffic that Agent Provocateur regularly gets — and the actual shopping done on the site. Conclusion? There are lots of people staring goggle-eyed at images of lingerie-clad ladies who have zero interest in shopping.

Bartle talked about the work he did for a brand called Nude Skincare. “Their conversion rate was low compared with the large amount of traffic, so [the principals] assumed there was a problem with the site.” The answer? It turns out that many curious types like to trawl for the word “nude” online, and Nude Skincare pops up as a top site.

Like Agent Provocateur, Nude, a natural skin-care brand, was attracting many a voyeur, so it was no wonder conversion rates were comparatively low. “Conversion rates need to be put in context,” he said. “And you need to overlay your numbers with comment.”

Bartle also tackled shopping-basket abandonment rates: “70 to 80 percent abandonment rates are common. Why?” People are window-shopping, he said, or the site times out, or they’re working with multiple devices, or they’re browsing by day and then shopping at night.

Bartle, who served in the past as head of marketing at Net-a-porter.com, also addressed order values. “There is nothing average about an order value. When I was working at Net-a-porter, the AOV was 450 pounds [$770]. What that really meant was people were either spending 200 pounds [$342] or less, or 600-plus [$1,026-plus] pounds.”

Bartle stressed that a look of a site need not be fixed in stone, and that online strategies can change to suit to the moment or shoppers’ temperament in a certain season or moment.

“We have a very ugly homepage during the sale period,” he admitted, referring to Agent Provocateur. Why curate the site when there are only a few sizes available for each model? In the case of the sales periods, people need to shop by size, he said.

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