The Challenge of Curation in E-commerce: what there is to overcome and why retailers are struggling

August 29, 2023
Rebecca Wine profile picture
Rebecca Wine

This article explores the challenges of product curation in e-commerce. While offering a wide range of choices may seem beneficial, it often overwhelms online shoppers. Experts emphasize the importance of understanding customer preferences and the need to balance product selection, customer engagement, and inventory management. By mastering curation, understanding customer preferences, and breaking down organizational barriers are essential for a successful e-commerce strategy.

Navigating online stores nowadays can feel like venturing through a never-ending maze. E-commerce sites bombard us with countless choices, making it a real challenge to pick the perfect product. The prevailing idea behind this is that more options mean more conversions. 

But here's the twist: humans can only handle so many choices before their brains hit a roadblock. However, experts argue that humans have limited cognitive capacity for processing a deluge of options, resulting in decision fatigue. 

This raises a critical question: Have businesses neglected the art of curation?

Curation is the art of selecting, organizing, and presenting products in a way that resonates with the customer, and it plays a pivotal role in enhancing the online shopping experience.

To figure out why curation has not been built into the foundation of e-commerce I spoke with Oliver Banks, He is founder of retail consultancy OB&Co, that helps retail leaders to drive transformation and realize their strategies and goals. His podcast, The Retail Transformation Show, consistently lists as the #1 UK retail podcast and among the top retail podcasts in the world.

Why e-commerce lacks curation today:

The prevailing perception, according to Oliver, has long been that offering a larger product selection in e-commerce leads to increased sales. If you are looking for a pair of Nike trainers online, and the webshop has many different options to choose from “well, I'm probably more likely from a Google search, more likely to convert if I've got 10 to choose from”. 

This belief stems from the idea that appearing frequently in Google searches and shopping results can boost visibility, especially for branded products. Therefore, having a diverse selection of such trainers, even if it's just from a small image and price range, can make it more likely for customers to see it on Google and subsequently convert. This variety caters to different preferences and budgets, potentially inspiring more purchases.

E-commerce was built to do well in a Google search, but what benefits the shopper in a Google search, won’t necessarily benefit them exploring a retailer’s webshop. Retailers must find a way to cater to these two distinct customer groups: buyers and shoppers. Buyers know exactly what they want, looking for specific products based on price and features. Shoppers, however, seek inspiration, and are open to new ideas. 

While e-commerce today is optimized towards buyers, it often falls short in inspiring shoppers. When there is too much choice, your customers will become overwhelmed. Retailers must strike the right balance between providing a vast amount of products to choose from, and more guidance when it comes to making the right choice.

The physical store vs. e-commerce: why context and curation matters

Unlike in e-commerce, curation in physical stores has been a staple of retail strategy to boost in-store traffic and sales. This approach, characterized by "less is more," streamlines inventory and customizes product offerings for specific target customers, which is particularly valuable in today's competitive market. However, this doesn’t mean that retailers can just copy the same tactics used in physical stores and apply them online. Oliver points out that context matters. It is much easier for shoppers to scan a physical store and narrow down the choice of products because they are influenced by other factors and sensory experiences beyond just the product image and price. 

Take for example pricing: When visiting physical stores, prices are not as prominently featured. They are available but not the central focus, which creates a different shopping experience. Conversely, product price is featured heavily online. In fact, many view products online by sorting based on price. This highlights the contrast in shopping dynamics. 

It’s easy to imagine that if the approach of a physical store were applied to e-commerce – that is, if prices were only revealed on the product details page or in the cart – it might be perceived as unusual or even frustrating, as it differs from the usual online shopping experience.

Finding the balance between shopper expectations, the individual channel, and creating an inspiring shopping experience can be a daunting task, and there is currently no playbook for implementing this. 

I spoke with Liza Amlani to pick her brain on some of the possible ways retailers can focus more on curation online. Liza is a principal and founder of Retail Strategy Group, a retail expert with 20 years of industry knowledge and experience in Merchandising, Buying, Product Development and Sourcing with luxury and mass merchant retailers in both regional and global markets.

How to address curation in e-commerce

The key component to good curation, according to Liza Amlani, lies in “how close they can get to the customer by understanding how the customer wants to shop, how they want to engage with the brand across channels, and how they're solving for friction points in the customer journey”.

This is not just an opportunity to get a competitive advantage, it can also protect against rising challenges like the explosion of popularity of marketplaces.  Liza says, “that a lot of marketplaces take advantage of having the endless aisle of products. The challenge with that is customer fatigue”. Product curation becomes paramount here to simplify the shopping process and present relevant options.  

According to Liza,“what we need to do is get back to basics. Let's simplify how we are building that customer journey. And I think it's important for retailers to actually go into their own websites and go through the customer journey themselves because I think a lot of them have a disconnect to the customer”.

The Root of the Problem of an excessive offering: The Role of People in Digital Transformation

When a brand or retailer finds itself with excessive inventory that they need to sell at markdown prices, it's often a sign of challenges in inventory management, and supply/demand dynamics. Situations like this, according to Liza, indicate that “you don't know what the customer wants, and you're buying and assorting products that the customer doesn't want.”

These issues become evident when examining earnings calls and public disclosures from a retailer or brand. The root cause appears to be a lack of customer insight and underutilization of product curation, personalization, predictive analytics, and AI to shape their product assortments.

Many retailers and brands face similar challenges with both excess inventory, and inventory management problems. The key lies in an effective digital transformation and the ability to use all the available data to make more informed decisions. However, the main hurdle often lies in obtaining valuable insights from this data and effectively sharing it among cross-functional teams. 

According to Liza, “this is the biggest problem we have today in retail, is that there are cultures within cross-functional teams that are very set in their ways, and they're not looking at the entire organization's goals, but just their own singular goals. Whether it is marketing, product development, design merchandising planning.”

While budget constraints and technology are a factor in the lack of retail transformation, the most significant barrier often lies in organizational culture. The presence of silos and a lack of communication across teams hinders brands from truly understanding and catering to their customers' needs, ultimately affecting their success in the market.

Wrapping up:

The modern online shopper faces a barrage of choices, and the prevailing belief has been that a vast product selection equates to increased sales. However, this approach, while suitable for search engine visibility, frequently fails to deliver a seamless and inspiring shopping experience. The contrast between physical stores, where sensory experiences prevail and prices take a back seat, and e-commerce, where prices are prominently displayed, underscores the dilemma of finding the right balance.

Moreover, the challenges in curation go beyond mere product selection. Understanding the customer's journey across various channels, addressing marketplace saturation, and effectively managing inventory are all facets that demand attention. Excess inventory, often a symptom of misunderstanding customer preferences, underscores the need for improved data-driven decision-making and cross-functional collaboration.

The people factor emerges as a central theme in digital transformation. Breaking down silos, fostering a culture of data sharing, and placing the customer at the core of strategies are essential steps in overcoming the challenges of curation in e-commerce. As the industry evolves, these insights serve as signposts for retailers and brands seeking to enhance their curation efforts and provide customers with an engaging, simplified, and personalized shopping experience in the digital realm. Understanding and mastering the art of curation can be the key to success.

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