When it comes to finding products on an online retailer's website, a customer's shopping method can likely be classified as being either a browser or a searcher. Browsers are best thought of as those that like to locate products by entering a site and then taking time to look around by clicking down many levels of a product category. For instance, if someone goes to the Target website looking to purchase a toaster, they would start their shopping by clicking on the general Home, Furniture & Patio top level category then follow a click-path that takes them through the Kitchen->Kitchen Appliances subcategory and then into the Toaster sub-subcategory. Depending on how well a retailer's site is designed, the browser method for finding products could take some time.

Searchers, on the other hand, take a more direct approach. They simply enter a search term into a website's search box and are presented with results matching their search query. This shopping method generally obtains information much faster than using the browsing approach. But, for searchers, there is often a problem with this way of locating information. Namely, the results to the search can contain irrelevant information that does not match what the searcher is really seeking. For instance, for a customer that is truly interested in a regular toaster, the results page of a "toaster" keyword search may include not only regular toasters, but also toaster ovens or even Toaster Strudel (food item). It is because of such ineffective search results that many customers find being a searcher is actually more time consuming than browsing. This may especially be the case when customers use their mobile phones to find products as the small screen space often restricts shopping to using the search method.

Now it appears search results at online retailer are getting better. As discussed in this Internet Retailer story, several companies are promoting search software that is much better in pointing customers to the products they are really interested in seeing. As noted in the story, the new technology often presents searchers with what the software predicts to be the best match to a search query. Thus, in some cases, instead of seeing multiple pages of products, the searcher may only be shown a single product that the search technology estimates is the best match for the query the customer entered. How can search technology know this? Primarily by using "learning" methods that evaluate hundreds-of-thousands, if not millions, of search queries to see how customers behave.

The story presents the site search experience of several retailers, including one retailer who believes it has helped increase sales by more than 20%. The story also discusses the companies offering advanced search technology.

Checkout Lane Impulse BuyingOne of the most curious behaviors exhibited by consumers is their propensity to make unsought or impulse purchases. Just walk into any convenience store and you are bound to see someone making a purchase they had not thought about making when they first entered. Appealing to the unplanned purchaser is a key marketing strategy for many companies, such as those selling fast foods, snacks and soft drinks. Firms in these industries, and many others, make every effort to have their products noticed while a shopper is still in the store. For instance, while standing in the checkout line at a grocery store, consumers are surrounded by racks containing candy bars, magazines and money cards, as well as small refrigerators containing soft drinks. In convenience stores, there is barely space on countertops as these are well stocked with takeout food.

However, to successfully appeal to impulse purchasers, a marketer must make sure the consumer is slowed down. Customers who breeze through a store may not be exposed long enough for unplanned buying to set in. The result is that sped up customers are leading to a slowdown in impulse purchasing. The reason, according to this story from the Washington Post, can be traced to such retailing trends as self-checkout lanes, curbside pickup and online purchasing. Additionally, the story examines how the reduction in impulse buying is negatively affecting candy giant Hershey. The company is now responding by planning new ways of stimulating consumer unplanned buying. Their efforts will focus on the use of new technologies and, more importantly, new locations for placing their products. The options being tested include adding kiosks or menu boards in curbside pickup areas, adding vending machines in unusual locations (e.g., next to gasoline pumps) and placing new candy dispensers at self-checkout spots.

Curiously, much of the slowdown in impulse purchasing is happening because of changes made by retailers despite the fact that such purchasing can be quite profitable. For instance, as noted in the story, while products sold around a checkout area represent just 1% of a supermarket's sales, these products represent 4% of total profit. So it would seem retailers may be very open to new new ways to spur unplanned purchasing.

We have mentioned many times in our KnowThis Blog that the competitive environment forces marketers to be creative. For instance, we recently looked at how creative methods are used to design new toy products. We also saw how a creative pull promotion was used to increase movie theater sales. And we discussed how designing creative advertising can help a brand stand out.

It is important to understand that being creative does not mean a marketer must sit in a room and come up with all new ideas on their own. Good marketers know ideas come from a variety of sources, such as conducting research to find out what customers want or observing how marketing is done in other industries. Additionally, many marketers shift idea development by hiring specialized companies, such as advertising agencies.

Along the lines of shifting idea generation, there is a growing alternative for finding creative marketing concepts. According to this story in the Los Angeles Times, marketers are turning to crowdsourcing as a way to generate ideas. Crowdsourcing is most often associated with fundraising through such websites as Kickstarter. But websites, including Talenthouse and Tongal, now offer marketers access to potentially hundreds of creative people. On these websites, marketers place a request for ideas, generally seeking new designs (e.g., product packaging) and advertisements (e.g., video ads). The creator of the idea chosen by the marketer is then awarded a cash prize.

The crowdsourcing idea for advertising is not new. For instance, Frito-Lay has been running their Crash the Super Bowl ad creation contest since 2006. However, what is new is that crowdsourcing an idea is now being viewed as an affordable creative tool that can help almost any marketer.

In the KnowThis Blog, we make an attempt to cover a wide range of marketing topics. However, looking over our past posts, there is one topic that seems to capture our attention quite frequently. That topic is retailing, which we discuss more than any other. It is somewhat difficult to pinpoint the exact reason we discuss this so much other than pointing to the remarkable changes this industry has experienced over the last 25 or so years. In particular, thanks to technology, retailing has evolved well beyond what anyone would have predicted.

Unfortunately, not everyone in the industry has benefited from the technology evolution in retailing. As we have reported several times, many retailers, who made the mistake of not adapting to change, are no longer with us. We first discussed this back in 2010 when we reported on how Hollywood Video, a chain of video rental outlets, was calling it quits as new technologies had hit the company hard. In 2011, we again looked at failed retailers when we listed 11 U.S. retailers that went bankrupt after the 2008 economic downturn. While at that time we primarily placed the blamed on the economy, in a post a few years later that discussed RadioShack, it was becoming clear that the failures back in 2011 were as much the result of customers shifting their purchases to the Internet as it was to a down economy.

Today, we have the report of another retail casualty. As discussed in this New York Times story, SkyMall, the in-airline shopping magazine, has filed for bankruptcy. At the top of the list of reasons for their failure is the change in fliers' in-flight activities, which are due, in large part, to new technologies, such as tablet devices.

Like many famous retailers, SkyMall was unable to adapt easily to technological changes that have taken place. And because of this, along with most retailers that have failed in the last ten years, SkyMall will serve as an excellent case study on how not adjusting to technological innovation can negatively impact a company.

At one time, the catalog was considered a big deal in U.S. retailing. Leading retailers, most notably Sears, would produce numerous catalogs every year, each consisting of hundreds of pages. These direct mail pieces were shipped to homes, where customers would page through a catalog and then place their order by phone or, in the years before the telephone, by mailing a print order.

For most retailers, the days of catalogs are long gone thanks in large part to the Internet and e-commerce. While Sears built its business with catalog sales, they are now barely surviving, with many blaming the retailer's struggles on their slow response to recognizing the Internet's impact on retailing. Other big catalog retailers, including Montgomery Ward, have also gone away.

So it is a bit curious that another struggling retailer, JC Penney,  is returning to the catalog business. According to this Entrepreneur story, after a nearly six-year absence JC Penney is once again sending out catalogs. As the story notes, the new catalog is very different from the last one they mailed in 2009, which contained over 800 pages. This one is a much skinner version, 120 pages, and likely serves more as an alternative to looking at products on a computer screen, as the actual purchase is still mostly made online.

JC Penney's return to direct mail catalogs may also be an indication the company is beginning to feel they are on the road to recovery. Of course, given the incredibly competitive environment that is retailing, that road to recovery may require they come up with many more interesting marketing ideas.