Anyone who’s spent weeks searching for the perfect laptop bag will tell you: one of the great unsolved mysteries of e-commerce is understanding taste. Of course, there are other issues; fit and sizing, shipping costs, and the hassle of the return. But taste is more nuanced. The process of discovery is mercurial, and most of us don’t know quite know what we’re looking for until we see it.
We’re constantly assured that e-commerce is the future of retail, so it’s surprising to learn that only 6% of retail sales last year occurred online.* Suddenly, solving the problem of taste, discovery, and want seems a great deal more pressing.
At Redshift, we’re particularly invested in this problem as we look at crafting solutions that help users navigate an online environment that grows more cluttered and overwhelming by the hour. We decided to take a look at the ways various industry players are catering to user’s taste.
Retail’s response generally falls into two kinds of strategies: optimizing page layout, and creating branded editorial content.
J.Crew and eBay excel in this first area. Like 99% of online retailers, they understand that the best way to capture attention is to comb their catalogs and offer up a simple homepage showcasing just a few curated selections. We think J.Crew does this better than most anyone else, and eBay gets an honorable mention because (not without help) they have managed to cull 100 million+ listings into a homepage of cohesive and appealing collections.
Many retailers are also opting for the other strategy: creating branded editorial content. When done well, this is a terrific opportunity for brands to establish themselves as trusted tastemakers, highlighting the promise of a lifestyle while subtly pointing to products that can fulfill it. Mr. Porter’s Journal is a standout here.
Online Media Outlets
Blogs and online magazines also play an important role in this ecosystem for their ability to influence taste, and drive sales to online retailers via affiliate programs. Phillipe von Borries—founder of the hugely successful Refinery29—says it best: “commerce is a critical component for us reinventing a media company and what the content commerce relationship is.” Refinery29’s genius is in creating content that people actually want to read, and in having an exceptional intuition for when/how often to insert product tie-ins within this content. Lifestyle bloggers like Cup of Jo's Joanna Goddard and GOOP's Gwyneth Paltrow have also proven out this model. Over the last decade, traditional print media has repeatedly struggled to map their content to an online landscape. Though it may rankle with some, von Borries' content-commerce hybrid does seem to indicate a clear path forward.
In the last couple of years, a slew of startups have sought to aid in the discovery of new products: Pinterest, Svpply, Polyvore, and Wanelo, just to name a few. These platforms all have slightly different recipes for how they serve up products, but they’re all looking at the same things: who your friends are, what stores you like, what (if any) tastemakers you follow, and what products you’ve earmarked. Conspicuously absent is shopping history. It turns out, although this data is valuable in many ways, most of us dislike being pigeon-holed by our past purchases.
Looking ahead, it’s hard to deny the immense value of the Pinterest machine, but we think Polyvore is also one to watch. With a thriving community based around user-generated (shoppable, of course) collages, they have unique insight into how people are curating, browsing, and consuming products online. Their goal is to take this data and use it develop a “taste graph,” which they claim will allow for an unprecedented level of accuracy in determining what any given user will like.
In short: taste is still very much an unsolved mystery, but the big players seem to be getting closer to cracking it.
*Source: Pew Research Center