Customers don't buy products, they buy stories. They have particular brands they love not because of their logos, but because of the stories they tell. They act as brand ambassadors and share content (for free) because of the stories embedded within that content. An often-cited example of the impact storytelling has on e-commerce is that of the Significant Objects project (http://significantobjects.com/about/) by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn. Rob and Josh purchased a collection of random knick-knacks for $129 and used professional writers to craft unique backstories for each product before placing them on eBay. The result was turning that $129 investment into a $3,600 yield - not bad for some crafty wordsmithing.
Using Storytelling in Your Customer Buying Experience
When thinking about the buying experience you provide your customers, you need to ask yourself, "What story am I telling?" The first area to review is the way in which you're allowing your customers to explore your products and become educated on what you sell. There is a traditional structure for multi-SKU e-commerce companies that provides a solid 'foundational buying experience' for users. This structure often consists of navigation that provides the user the ability to view products by their attributes such as brand, gender, type, size and price. The problem with this foundational structure is that it lacks a story altogether. You're relying on the static 'data' associated with products as they way in which you inspire purchasing. How then, can a brand add storytelling to the buying experience they provide their users?
Merchandising Themes to Tell Your Product Story
Turning to traditional 'brick and mortar' retailers, we can borrow from the practice of 'merchandising' to craft unique presentations of products. The best way to think of merchandising is to picture walking into a retailer and seeing a highly curated window/table display where specific products are selected and arranged all fitting into a particular theme. These themed and curated displays allow the retailer to craft a unique story around the products that they're promoting. There is the opportunity to explain why these selections were made and how they fit into their respective theme. There is also the opportunity to capitalize on trendiness/timeliness of certain products or in bundling products together and creating unique pricing promotions.
So how can we use this idea of merchandising to help drive conversion on our site specifically? What stories can we tell that might excite our customers? I'd suggest we explore a few possible 'themes' that have been used by other companies and could be used in your own e-commerce merchandising strategy:
1) Season-Based Merchandising
Summer Camp by Forever21
One classic theme many retailers take advantage of is the change in seasons. Apparel certainly leads the pack in not only changing products around the change of seasons, but offering products that are season-specific (at least one would hope). This allows them to curate products in a very timely-fashion and often increase product price-points given the season-specific demand. Companies such as Forever21 have taken to creating specific landing pages for their 'summer collection', here they deem Summer Camp, where customers can explore new offerings.
2) Holiday-Based Merchandising
Fourth of July Collection at Target
An extension of seasons, holidays provide a great theme for retailers and e-commerce brands to curate specific selections of products. Many holidays, such as Christmas, come with their own inherit products that easily assemble into a collection. Others, such as the Fourth of July, simply infer products that might be associated with that season as a whole. Target has tagged a number of their products as Fourth of July items and made the collection available here to anyone visiting their website.
3) Event-Based Merchandising
Women's World Cup Collection by Nike
Major events, especially sports-related ones such as the Women's World Cup, provide a great opportunity for brands to assemble products based on or inspired by that particular activity. Pre-event gear and post-event celebratory products are two common categories we see with event-based merchandising. In this particular example, Nike has curated a collection of products both used by and inspired by the 2015 Women's World Cup soccer team.
4) Pop Culture Inspired Merchandising
Festival Collection by Free People
Driven much by the emergence of Electronic Dance Music, the music festival 'scene' has exploded over the past few years leading brands such as H&M and Free People to create product lines / collections inspired by these multi-day events. Aside from emerging pop culture trends such as these festivals, this type of theme could also look towards emerging media in the pop culture scene such as specific TV shows, movies or books. Collections of these sort are often more driven by products of that particular brand, but could also benefit from applying a merchandising approach to organizing and presenting them on an e-commerce website.
5) Function-Based Merchandising
Room-Specific Collections by Design within Reach
Although it toes the line of a product attribute, there is often a lot of value in thinking about the 'function' a particular product serves and using that as the basis for your merchandising strategy. This type of strategy is commonly found in furniture where the 'function' of a product (i.e. it's used in your bedroom) does differ from the type (i.e. it's a bed). Here, Design within reach is using the 'bedroom function' as the theme for this particular product collection, which helps the user understand the context in which a product might serve.
Identifying themes such as the above to employ in your e-commerce merchandising strategy is only the first step towards improving your customers buying experience. An effective merchandising strategy requires not just smart product selection, but quality media that aids in the intended 'narrative' of that collection. Imagery is key within these collections as it will always do a better job in telling a story than text. Bonus points if you're able to incorporate video. One last thing to consider is the opportunity to cross-sell products within your merchandising theme from each individual product page. Create consistency across your website as to the story you're telling with your merchandising and the various products that fit into that theme.