Apu Gupta, Curalate

Apu Gupta, chief executive officer and cofounder of Curalate, a company that seeks to “optimize digital commerce for discovery,” wants retailers to replicate the pleasures of in-store browsing in an online environment.

Gupta said this is particularly important because the retail market is at a tipping point. “E-commerce is 20 years old. But we’re now in the midst of a massive shift in consumer behavior, from buying offline to buying online.”

While retailers might now be adept at creating aspirational online content and lush visuals — a beautifully styled bedroom or a carefully curated summer cocktail scene — they’re not as good at helping the customer move seamlessly from inspiration to purchase.

“Getting discovery to connect to sales is becoming vitally important, and is still a new skill for marketers,” said Gupta.

The kinks in the journey frustrate customers. Gupta pointed to a lifestyle image that Nordstrom shared on its Facebook page, with the model wearing jeans and sneakers. The retailer didn’t, however, allow the customer to click through to buy those products on the Nordstrom site.

Cue plenty of irate comments from the retailer’s Facebook fans.

“We’re making the effort to create content like this…and then we frustrate the audience,” said Gupta. “If you did this in a store…you could get fired. But we do this online because we really don’t have a lot of choice.”

The problem, Gupta said, is the rigid way in which e-commerce sites are often built. It’s a model that’s more akin to an old-fashioned product catalogue, with an endless number of pages filled with still-life images.

“How do you actually enable somebody to navigate this? How do you actually enable them to make choices when you have so much on offer?” asked Gupta.

He said retailers should pave an easier-to-navigate path between editorial and commerce pages, and create more of an editorial atmosphere on the product pages themselves.

Retailers, he said, need to draw the customer in with the gorgeous shot of the bedroom, and then make it easy for them to click and buy the bed, the sheets, the rug and the scented candle.

Gupta pointed to an initiative that Curalate had put in place for Urban Outfitters’ UO Community, which pulls together images from Instagram created both by Urban Outfitters and by consumers wearing the brand’s designs. When a visitor to the site clicks on an image, it instantly gives them the option to buy the products shown.

This idea has caught on with larger retailers, with Amazon launching an “Interesting Finds” page that pulls together a selection of gifting products with an editorial eye, a stark contrast to what Gupta called the site’s “dull” product pages.

Artificial intelligence will also become increasingly important in helping consumers to search online using images, Gupta predicted.

“Computers are now getting smart enough where you can say, ‘Find me something like this,’” said Gupta, referring to an image. “You’re starting to see the beginnings of computers actually taking over the role of that visual matching.”

Cultivating a sense of discovery online is the key, he said. “It is going to actually give you a fighting chance in responding to this new way of consumer behavior.”

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