5 Ways Online Retailers Are Making It Easier to Buy Things

Mixed race teenage girls using digital tablet on floor at shopping mall
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By Rebecca Borison

NEW YORK -- The retail industry is always evolving, particularly in today's digital age, but with all of the various technologies being tested -- both online and in stores -- everything ties back to one simple goal. How can retailers make it easier and faster for consumers to purchase?

Especially online, one of the biggest challenges for retailers is "cart abandonment," meaning that a customer will browse around, add a few items to a cart, but then ultimately decide against following through with the purchase.

Perhaps the consumer went to another retailer or just decided against the purchase altogether. Either way, the retailer's goal is to avoid that scenario as often as possible. "The key is, for this to succeed, it has to be a frictionless experience for the customer," said Mike Rowland, director in West Monroe Partners' Customer Experience practice.

From social media buy buttons to physical buttons, here are the many new ways in which retailers are attempting to do just that.

Buy Buttons

The most recent trend in the retail world is to imbue social media platforms with commerce capabilities.

%VIRTUAL-pullquote-Along the journey of customer experience, when you look at the ideas of social commerce, there's an expectation out there regarding how easy it will be to do business.%Twitter (TWTR) , Facebook (FB), Pinterest and Instagram have all jumped on the bandwagon here. They are each testing buy buttons that let their users make a purchase directly through an ad on their site without leaving the platform. The idea being that there are already so many eyes on those ads, why not try to convert them then and there and make it as easy as possible for the purchase to happen?

"Along the journey of customer experience, when you look at the ideas of social commerce, there's an expectation out there regarding how easy it will be to do business," Rowland said.

Google (GOOG), too, is rolling out a buy button on its mobile search ads on the same theory of making it easier for consumers to make a purchase.

These buy buttons are still in the early phases and only a select number of retailers have access to them, but assuming the trials pan out successfully, it is easy to conceive that this will be a key strategy for retailers moving forward.

At-home Hardware

While social media platforms are testing out digital buy buttons, Amazon (AMZN) is experimenting with actual physical buttons. In March, Amazon launched the Dash button, which is a small branded button that a consumer can press to reorder a product like detergent, toilet paper and coffee pods. After initially sending these free to select Prime customers, Amazon is now selling the buttons for $4.99 each.

Amazon is hoping a customer, for instance, will buy a Tide Dash button and hang it up in his laundry room so that the next time he's running low on detergent he'll just press the button and an order of Tide will be on its way.

Amazon also lets consumers order via its Echo device, which is Amazon's personal assistant service, similar to Apple's (AAPL) Siri.

With both the Echo and the Dash button, the capability extends only to Prime members who are ordering a product that they have already ordered previously. Nonetheless, it promises to close the gap between intent and purchase. The minute you remember you need detergent, you can automatically place the order, instead of having to remember to order it next time you open your laptop.

"One button shopping is very much like impulse buying at the cash register," said Vishal Gaur, associate dean for MBA programs and professor of operations management at Cornell University. "When the customer has an impulse to buy, you want to capture that impulse right away rather than letting the opportunity go and having the customer shop at a competitor."

Augmented Reality

Another technology that retailers have been using for some time now is so-called "augmented reality," which blends print with online. Augmented reality takes an advertisement in a magazine and connects it to a digital experience, which brings the consumer closer to a purchase.

For example, Target (TGT) is running an ad in Vogue's September issue that ties in an augmented reality component. When a consumer opens up the Shazam app on her phone and hovers it over the ad, she will be able to buy any of the products from the ads immediately.

Traditionally, a magazine reader who is interested in a dress she sees would have to remember to go find that product later on online. The chances of her forgetting or deciding against the purchase are high. Using Shazam, Target can combat that problem.

In-store Apps

On top of innovating in e-commerce, retailers are realizing that technology should also be brought into physical stores as well. One of the ways in which they're doing that is offering in-store modes in their mobile apps to add different functionalities for shoppers.

Target, for example, has an app called Cartwheel that lets shoppers scan items in store to get discounts.

Other retailers like Walmart (WMT) also offer in-store apps that offer different features such as store maps, shopping lists and deals. Some use video technology to create heat maps of where consumers are in the store. Others use technologies like beacons to track an individual consumer and send them personalized deals right as they pass a certain product in the store.

"Two years back [these location-based apps] were somewhat clunky but they're getting better," Gaur said. "That's one place where brick-and-mortar retailers are becoming savvy now compared to where they were just a few years back."

Mobile Wallets

As the mobile payments industry heats up, retailers are trying to tap into those technologies to make it easier for consumers to make purchases.

Retailers like Starbucks (SBUX) are creating their own branded mobile wallets. This not only lets consumers leave their wallet in the office when they run down to get a coffee, but it is also integrated with their loyalty program and gamifies the whole purchase. Consumers end up buying more to get more Starbucks stars.

Other retailers are just deciding to accept mobile wallets like Apple Pay and Android Pay. Some retailers have partnered up under the Merchant Customer Exchange to work on their own mobile payment solution called CurrenC, but those efforts have yet to come to fruition, with the consortium having yet to launch an actual product.

Whether or not consumers think these mobile solutions are easier than credit cards or not, retailers want to leave the door open and let consumers choose.
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