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The A-Z of eCommerce Product Discovery

eCommerce Best Practices
Trends and Future of Retail
Sarah HillelSarah Hillel | October 26, 2020

Think of the last few times you browsed through a store: you likely were looking for something along the lines of, ‘a dress for my weekend getaway,’ ‘a gift for my father’s birthday,’ or ‘wall decor for a minimalist room.’ You had ideas — not specific products — in mind.

That’s how most consumers start their shopping journeys. At brick-and-mortar stores, they can approach a sales associate and ask for guidance and recommendations. Online, they have to break down their ideas into searchable keywords. If successful, they then have to navigate through a sea of choices.

eCommerce product discovery

It’s no secret that consumers choose to shop online because of the convenience. But as the online shopping revolution continues, the sheer number of options has increased so much that consumers often end up either lost entirely or confused. And when they can’t find the products that they’re looking for on your website or the endless options feel overwhelming and irrelevant, it reflects poorly on your brand.

As competition heats up in eCommerce, focusing on seamless product discovery can help you stand out. When done correctly, product discovery experiences should eliminate the friction between search and purchase, as well as accurately grasp the ideas and needs of each individual customer. This personalized approach to product discovery not only boosts sales but also increases customer loyalty.

Here’s an in-depth guide to product discovery, its increasing importance in solving current eCommerce pain points, and tips on how brands can get it right.

What is Product Discovery?

Product discovery is the way your customers find and explore your products. This can be done in a variety of ways, from text and visual search functionalities to personalized recommendation carousels to smart merchandising and even inspiration galleries. The goal is to surface relevant products for each customer at the right moment.

Shoppers are usually either dead set on finding a particular item or they’re just browsing around. In both cases, the foundation of an effective product discovery process should be personalized and unique to each of your customers.

Modern Shoppers and the eCommerce Discovery Phase

Online shopping journeys today are dynamic. It’s no longer just a linear, straightforward transaction of buying and selling products. From social media to online marketplaces, consumers have numerous ways to shop and discover products. In fact, a 2018 study conducted by Google and Ipsos found that consumers often have up to four touchpoints with a brand before making a final purchase decision.

To address the contemporary needs of your customers in terms of online product discovery, you have to understand their lifestyle and behavior. Who is the modern shopper? How do they search for and determine what to buy?

· Inspiration is everywhere

In our connected world, consumers find inspiration at every turn, from social media, to fashion and decor magazines, to brand websites, blogs, their friends, TV, celebrities and influencers, and more. According to a Deloitte survey, social media is the most cited channel when it comes to getting product information. In fact, 70% of Pinterest users have discovered something to buy on the visual social network

Another survey revealed that 41% of shoppers rely on influencers and bloggers for purchase ideas, compared with just 20% who go to in-store staff. This explains the success of digital-first brands like Fashion Nova, which is known for effectively tapping influencers’ social media reach.

· Value beyond price and product

Today’s shoppers look at brands as a whole package — the product, the experience, the service, the brand story, its values, and more come together to form their overall impression. Even before the 2020 pandemic, consumers had been transitioning to more mindful shopping. Now, everything from your website layout and load speed to your sustainability efforts are under scrutiny.

In fact, Nielsen found that 73% of consumers would change their shopping habits to reduce their environmental impact. Conscious consumption or not, shoppers seek to engage and associate themselves with brands and online communities that not only provide value but also reflect their principles.

new consumers value community and innovative product discovery experiences

· Individuality above all else

Younger consumers — Gen Z in particular — feel strongly about their personal style. They not only seek out the brands and retailers who sell products compatible with their aesthetic, but they also value those who recognize and understand the looks they’re trying to create.

This means recommending the right items on-site, in marketing emails, and in social ads, as well as offering discounts and deals on items relevant to them. Shoppers who feel seen and understood by brands are more likely to remain brand-loyal in the log-run.

· Sky-high expectations

With modern technology moving as fast as it does, consumers today expect their eCommerce experiences to be as quick and intuitive as their smartphones. Just one bad experience with your website is enough to hurt their perception of your brand.

These shoppers also anticipate that as they hop from your store to your app and back again, each experience will cohere with the last to form a seamless omnichannel journey. In short, they hold brands and retailers to the same standards as tech giants.

Why is Product Discovery in eCommerce Important?

Consumers encounter dozens of new products every day. When they’re ready to buy, brands must not only deliver the product that matches the idea they have in mind but also offer it up at the right moment. This is the most effective way to attract and convert high-intent shoppers.

It also sets the tone for your entire customer experience. If you have same-day shipping, beautiful packaging, and an industry-leading loyalty program, shoppers will only experience that if they’re able to find and purchase the items they’re looking for in the first place.

It sounds simple, but delivering exceptional product discovery experiences at scale is a serious undertaking, and most brands and retailers struggle to get it right.

The eCommerce Discovery Problem

After being inundated with product inspiration, consumers are suddenly met with a gap between what they want to purchase and what they are able to find. In some cases, they may even be caught in a guessing game, trying to figure out the brand, style, season, and other product details that will lead them to the right item. At this point, they usually start searching on their favorite retailer and brand websites.

According to Google, at least 63% of shopping journeys begin online. Moreover, Salesforce and Publicis.Sapient found that “75% of consumers’ search queries are brand new each month, showing just how fast consumers are discovering new product types, brands, and features.”

Search is the core of product discovery. It allows brands to gauge what consumers are looking for on their website, while also connecting shoppers with their ideal products… in theory.

Search has a major flaw. Most eCommerce search engines do not have the infrastructure to support intuitive queries. A usability study of eCommerce search and results conducted by Baymard Institute revealed “surprisingly dismal support for essential eCommerce search query types.” Here are some of the striking results:

  • 70% require users to search with the exact same product jargon the site uses
  • 22% of websites don’t support search queries for a color variation (despite the product searched for being available in multiple colors)
  • 60% don’t support thematic search queries, such as “spring jacket” or “office chair”
  • 84% don’t handle queries with subjective qualifiers such as “cheap” or “high-quality”

With all these obstacles in place, shoppers are unlikely to see any relevant results when performing a text search, derailing the shopping journey before it’s even had a chance to begin.

And shoppers who don’t use text search are left to their own devices to browse through dozens upon dozens of product listing pages.

The Cost of Poor Discovery Experiences

Product discovery is the gateway to your entire customer experience; when it goes wrong, it damages the overall impression of your brand. In fact, CustomerThink cited a study stating that a poor search experience helps the competition gain up to 12% of users.

According to PwC, one in three customers will leave a brand they love after a single negative experience, and 92% would completely abandon a company after two or three negative interactions.

This translates directly to product discovery: Consumers navigating a website or app with bad product discovery functionality spend more time just attempting to search for an item they intend to buy. For shoppers who simply don’t have the time or energy to spare (read: most of them), they just leave, often for good.

eCommerce product discovery

How Can Brands Get Product Discovery Right?

The key to successful product discovery is surfacing the right products for the right audience at the right time. It’s about making the process intuitive and easy for your website visitors, however they choose to shop.

Put simply, it boils down to taking a personalized approach. Brands can use a combination of tools and strategies to tailor the eCommerce product discovery experience to the individual customer level. Essentially, it involves making website navigation intuitive, displaying accurate search results and relevant products, and allowing shoppers to narrow down their choices until they’re left with a set of products that they find most appealing.

The Benefits of Better Product Discovery

As you know, when it comes to retail and eCommerce, customer experience is the name of the game. According to Walker, as KPMG cited, customer experience will take overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator by the end of 2020. In relation, Gartner revealed that 63% of business leaders believe that new and innovative customer experiences build customer loyalty.

eCommerce product discovery experiences are no exception. They have a dramatic impact on fostering brand loyalty. When you break down how seamless product discovery contributes to the overall online shopping experience, the benefits are too great to ignore:

  • Personalized product discovery makes shoppers feel seen and understood, which is difficult to achieve online. This strengthens brand affinity.
  • Meeting and exceeding your customers’ expectations for frictionless product discovery grows not only online conversion, but also retention across all channels due to a delightful and intuitive customer experience.
  • Highlighting products that match your customers’ unique tastes throughout the shopping journey encourages spontaneous purchases, boosting average order value.
  • Understanding what customers are looking for helps in managing inventory, predicting trends, and informing business decisions.

How Brands Can Improve: The Basics

Before we delve into the innovative tech transforming eCommerce product discovery, here are some quick wins to get a headstart:

  • Make your homepage more engaging: First impressions matter. Your homepage is your chance to entice shoppers to explore your website. Keep it fresh by showcasing collections of trending and popular products, new arrivals, inspiration galleries, and educational or social content that subtly promotes your items.
  • Update filtering and navigation: Make it as easy as possible for shoppers to find their way through your website, discover products, and refine their searches. The site menu must clearly list item categories, sub-categories, and even popular product types and product collections. Filtering should be robust enough to allow shoppers to layer selections, preventing the shopping experience from breaking.
  • Be where your customers are: According to our recent report, 79.2% of eCommerce sessions take place on mobile in the wake of COVID-19. While most major brands and retailers already invest in their mobile experience, now is the time to take it a step further with a mobile-first approach.
woman explores online shopping experience via laptop

Innovative Product Discovery Technology for eCommerce Brands

As NRF’s Mark Mathews put it, “Everyone is so busy, and has so little time. They aren’t looking for complicated technology. Consumers find the most utility in innovations that make their lives easier and make the transaction process more seamless.”

Here are the tools and technologies that can help you seamlessly connect your shoppers to the products they’re looking for:

· Smarter search to support intuitive queries

To create a truly great text search experience, brands and retailers need to be able to turn up relevant results when shoppers use synonyms, unconventional or colloquial phrasing, and even typos. Since traditional search architecture is limited and overly reliant on product tags, shoppers are often left disappointed with the results.

By choosing a text search solution that augments product tags using visual AI and combines that rich layer of product attributes with natural language processing to better capture human intent, you can ensure that you surface only the most relevant results for every type of search.

· AI and machine learning to power recommendations

Sonar found that more than half of US and UK shoppers appreciate brands using AI to show more interesting products and accurately predict what they want. As product discovery happens throughout the shopping journey, it makes sense to make it fun, engaging, and continuous. From search to purchase, you can suggest relevant products based on your customers’ previous and current browsing behavior.

To gain an edge over the competition, make sure that your chosen recommendation engine supports truly individualized personalization based on shopper behavior and visual tastes, as opposed to simply segmentation based on their demographic information and sequencing algorithms.

· Data and analytics to understand customers

Data is a goldmine of actionable insights not only about your business, but more importantly, your customers. In today’s visual-heavy online world, Nick Ingelbrecht and Tuong Nguyen from Gartner shared, “Image data will become an increasingly strategic and unique organizational asset and resource for unobtrusively generating the customer insight that is essential for improving customer experience.”

You can combine image data with other shopping data to improve the personalized recommendations that you deliver to customers. You can also use search data to optimize inventory management and other business processes.

· Voice and visual search to supplement typed keywords

The rise of Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant bring another dimension to product discovery. Instead of typing an idea or question, shoppers are now using voice to instruct search engines to find a place, define a word, and more. According to Google, 20% of searches in the app are now done by voice.

But sometimes, it’s difficult to capture the essence of a product by text or speech. Because of this, visual search is quickly becoming a must-have, especially in aesthetically-focused categories like fashion, jewelry, and home decor, where visually-motivated shoppers struggle to put the minute details they love into words. By enabling shoppers to upload an image as a way to search, you open up an intuitive avenue for product discovery. Accenture revealed that, “by 2021, early adopter brands that redesign their websites to support visual and voice search will increase digital commerce revenue by 30%.”

· Emerging technologies

As the pandemic alters shopping behaviors in favor of eCommerce, digital solutions that mimic in-store shopping as closely as possible are now giving brands a competitive advantage. Virtual reality, augmented reality, and 3D technologies add another layer of trust once shoppers have discovered a product they love.

According to Deloitte, “more than 1 billion smartphones and tablet devices can deliver augmented experiences, and within the next year, 100 million consumers are expected to shop using AR either online or in-store.”

A Look at the Future

Technology and consumer expectations are continuously evolving. For brands to attain and sustain success via eCommerce product discovery, it’s crucial to not only meet but also exceed the expectations of the market and target audience.

Whether it’s immersive shopping or omnichannel retail, at the end of the day, it will always be about the value you provide to customers. Connecting shoppers to the products they have in mind in a convenient, personal, and seamless way will keep your brand top of mind when and where it matters most.


Sarah Hillel

Sarah Hillel

Sarah is the Global Events and Marketing Manager at Syte. From conception to evaluation, Sarah is passionate about delivering impactful events that enhance the organization's image and brand to client experience.

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