By  on November 3, 2010

The increasingly social, mobile nature of the Internet is reducing the space between retailers and their customers and forcing merchants’ hands when it comes to investing in new technologies.

That was one of the common denominators among speakers on an e-commerce panel. Participants were Janet Carr, senior vice president of strategy and customer engagement for Coach Inc., Denise Incandela, president of Saks Inc.’s Saks Direct unit, and Carl Sparks, president of Gilt Groupe. Edmond Jay, senior vice president of American Express Co.’s Business Insights division, moderated.

Incandela led off by defining four areas that are receiving more attention at Saks’ e-commerce unit — improving the customer shopping experience, adjusting to the global nature of the business, adapting to mobile technologies and integrating social networking into operations. Getting e-commerce right is crucial, she noted, because the multichannel customer spends three to four times more than the single-channel customer, and also spends more time in stores. Salespeople get commission for Web purchases they facilitate, and all stores have access to merchandise that’s on the Web. A database has been assembled that incorporates customer information from all channels used by Saks, and the retailer is working on integrating its inventory so that all channels have access to it.

It’s done well, she said, with “dynamic product recommends,” in which customers are advised of the availability of products that match their customer profiles and buying histories.

She noted that, despite the surge in e-commerce activity for so many retailers, customers’ loyalties generally are focused on stores and brands, not the sales channels themselves. “We’re asking how to optimize the multichannel experience,” she said. “The customer is agnostic.”

Saks’ efforts to move forward on the mobile front will get a boost today when the retailer launches a mobile-friendly site, Incandela said.

Gilt is further along with its mobile strategy, and Sparks said the company has been “blown away” by how quickly its mobile efforts have gained momentum. On evenings and weekends, mobile devices can account for 20 percent of revenues, even though the company has been set up for iPads, iPhones and Android gadgets for less than a year.

The Gilt executive reported that the firm’s technical experts took different approaches to the iPad and iPhone technologies, stripping down the iPhone apps to the bare essentials and then building them up so that they were designed to easily handle transactions and information. With the larger, laptoplike iPad, they recognized that users would be spending more time and engaging in a wider range of activities and built-in features accordingly.

His advice to marketers looking to capitalize on the widening mobile landscape: “Get out of the way of your technical team and let them develop.”

As for social networks, at Gilt, they started off as a one-way marketing channel, Sparks said, and then became an interactive, two-way process, especially as Gilt added men’s merchandise and provided advice and some humor, including a “bad shoes” contest that, Sparks said, “we would never do in the women’s area.”

Now the communication exchange is a three-way affair. For instance, bloggers might make comments about something they do or don’t like on Gilt’s site. Should Gilt modify or add a product in response, it would reach out to the blogger and look for that person to help advise customers of the change.

In Gilt’s experience, exclusive offers and special events have proved more beneficial than discounts. With six different Facebook pages, social networking also has helped the customer engagement process.

According to Carr, the brick-and-mortar store remains the focal point of the Coach experience, but e-commerce and social networking can strengthen the brand-to-customer bond. “We have more than 1 million Facebook fans,” she said. “It’s not about monetizing it. Coach is an emotional brand. Moms pass products down to their daughters. People who are engaged in a brand like ours want to talk about it. It creates a community. It generates love and buzz.”

Whether in-store or on an iPad, Coach needs to follow its customers. “Mobile is a way to be where our customers are,” Carr said. “This is where our customer is going to lead us.”

Coach was helped in its e-commerce initiatives by the development of a customer database well in advance of the birth of the World Wide Web, and three-quarters of its sales are by customers already on its list. It’s also realized sales successes with tests run online, including one for baby bags, results of which “went through the roof,” Carr said.

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