This post is part of a series on the real-time web and its use for retailers. In this first, post, we’ll examine some of the possible use cases.
The phrase ‘real-time web‘ has been getting a lot of interest in the web industry recently. In computing, the term ‘real time’ refers to a system that has to operate within time constraints, where it’s important that the system react quickly and keep up-to-date with data arriving. Traditionally this has only been applied to mission-critical systems such as medical devices or financial trading systems, where a few missed milliseconds can make a huge difference.
The ‘real-time web’ uses the term more broadly, to refer to sites and applications which update very frequently, and which rely on that time dimension for a competitive advantage. Many new and popular web services, such as Twitter, are built around the notion of fast-moving data and this is changing our experience of the web from one where we browse mostly static pages and receive only occasional notifications – perhaps a weekly email – telling us about new content, new offers or new products. In the real-time world, content can be constantly shifting and customers and users will increasingly expect to see up-to-the-minute information.
So, how might this be relevant to retailers?
1. Real-time offers
An innovative new time-sensitive sales tactic is to offer discount codes and coupons via real-time messaging services such as Twitter or Facebook status updates. These codes can be limited in number, so that only those customers who order promptly can benefit from them. This creates a unique incentive to place an order, with the prospect of losing the discount if the prospective customer waits too long to place the order.
This technique can has been used by Dell and Zappos, amongst others. Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, has gained a phenomenal 567,000 followers on Twitter at the time of this post, and can use this network to broadcast coupon codes and other promotions to his entire audience, prompting surges of shoppers towards the Zappos site.
2. Real-time purchase information
One of the key insights for retailers is that customers are more likely to buy an item if they know that other people are buying it too. This is one of the reasons why a high number of reviews on products can help to drive sales, and why charts of best sellers have been a major part of retail promotions for decades. The web creates the opportunity to speed this up, giving customers information about what others are buying right now.
This is a good way of encouraging customers to make a buying decision, because they will feel more safe making their purchase knowing that others are doing so too. It’s possible – though not especially likely – that they might purchase the same item that they observe someone else buying, but the main benefit is in proving that the retailer is genuine and has an active customer base. The reassurance given to the customer is all-important.
The pictured example is from The Book Depository, which shows a series of notifications on their front page, illustrating recent purchases. In a nice twist, they use a Google Map to show where the buyer is from (enhancing their reputation as a global brand), pulling in a thumbnail image and title of the book bought. They also mention the free delivery given.
Many retailers make use of a count-down facility, letting customers know that if they order before a certain time they will qualify for next-day delivery or reduced shipping rates. Again, this adds an artificial sense of time pressure for buyers, who know that buying now will be a better deal than buying later, even if the saving is just on the shipping or on getting the product a day earlier.
Another more innovative, but also more controversial, approach that has been successful for a certain type of retailer is to introduce competition amongst the site visitors, with a time-limited auction. Sites such as Swoopo have pioneered a simple but effective tactic of charging users a small fee to bid on what appear to be highly under-priced items. In fact, the retailer makes almost all of their profit on the accumulated bidding fees and can easily afford to sell products at a ‘loss’. Whilst the ethics of this form of retailing might be dubious, it’s a perfect example of the use of time constraints – bidding is most frenzied when the auction is about to close – and the use of live feedback, as visitors can see the fresh bids appearing in real time.
4. Live shopping assistance
Another feature that is becoming more commonplace now is live shopping assistance, enabling visitors to talk directly to customer service representatives via a chat window. Although web chat systems have been in existence for some time, the technology has often been poorly implemented, making the experience a frustrating one for customers. But web chat is now back on the agenda, with systems like Facebook Chat making it ‘normal’ to hold a conversation via a browser window rather than a standalone instant messaging application such as MSN Messenger or Skype.
Live Chat systems are unlikely to be suitable for small-scale retailers, but for those retailers that already employ large customer service teams, a live chat option can provide the customer with extra reassurance, help and advice. The human touch can be more effective than any number of FAQ pages or inline help messages.
The common thread
What most of these uses of real-time technology have in common is that they all serve to make the individual customer aware of other people and their actions. Customers seeking to take advantage of limited discount codes know that they have to do it before others get there first. Customers observing the purchases made by others can feel reassured by the fact that others are shopping at the same place that they are. Ultimately, this use of the technology is all about giving individuals access to extra information that they wouldn’t get from an old-fashioned, static e-commerce site. In many cases, real-time update technology provides a means of keeping a site fresh even without requiring much intervention.
In the next post in this series, we will examine the technologies behind the real-time web, and the future developments that will change things even further.