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Online Merchandising Lessons

Books2I admire many of the merchandising techniques the online retailers have come up with over the years.  You can't browse a book online like you can in a physical store?  Problem (sort of) solved by introducing the online "look inside" feature.  It seems like there's no problem too challenging for the online retailers to at least attempt to solve.  So why does it seem that the brick-and-mortar stores don't bother implementing some of the more interesting features from the online world?

For example, I love Amazon's "Customers Who Bought Items Like This Also Bought" feature.  It's obviously an important element and drives incremental revenue or it wouldn't have the prominent placement on Amazon's product pages.  You may have set out to buy title X but now that you've also seen title Y you're buying both.  That's music to any retailer's ears, so why do you rarely, if ever, see this implemented in a brick-and-mortar store?

Most retailers would probably say they don't do this sort of thing because it's a stock management nightmare.  Amazon has it easy because everything is virtual, so they can mix and match related titles on the screen as much as they want; try doing that in the physical world and you've got a mess on your hands.

Maybe not though.  After all, I'm not suggesting they do this with every single book in the store!  How about simply focusing on the best seller displays at the front?  Your local bookstore typically has a section with the top 10 or 20 fiction and non-fiction titles.  That list doesn't change dramatically from day to day, so why not start there?  They could use their extensive sales history to determine which related titles customers frequently bought along with each of those best sellers.  Start simple and just place the #1 companion title alongside each of the best sellers and see where it leads.

Yes, it would force a bit of restructuring on the shelf but why not try it out for a few months and measure the results?  (Added bonus: As I publisher, I can't believe I'm suggesting this, but...why not also consider making it yet another placement fee slot in the store?  IOW, if publisher A's title happens to be the right match, ask them if they'd like to participate in the program for the tidy fee of $X.  Given the right circumstances (e.g., a low enough fee and the chance to sit next to a current best seller at the front of the store), you'll probably get a few takers.)

Still can't get past the in-store inventory management challenge?  OK, consider this alternative: At the bottom of each customer's receipt, print out a coupon for a limited time discount on a related title or two.  One of the major chains has experimented with printing what seem to be totally random store coupons like this, but why not step it up and use that database again to create something that's much more relevant?  This is another model that publishers would likely be interested in through a shared discount or some other fee structure.

The key here is to introduce ways of making more relevant products easily discoverable to customers who are already in the store.  It all leads to incremental sales, so you'd think the brick-and-mortar stores would be willing to experiment a bit on this front.

P.S. -- On a related note, in this post I wrote earlier this summer I suggested Amazon should consider introducing a horizontal scroll capability for better search results.  One reader commented that horizontal scrolling would be a nightmare but I'm happy to see Amazon has implemented it in their "Customers Who Bought Items Like This Also Bought" section of the product page; I think it works well and I hope they consider using this UI approach elsewhere (e.g., search!).


Michael A. Banks

I like the "related book" placement idea. I'd say mix it up when possible. That is, don't place the same book next to Bestseller A in every chain. What will it look like ? Line up the bestsellers left-to-right and place related titles beneath each, three or four deep.

Elisa Lucia

I HATE Amazon's "Customers Who Bought Items Like This Also Bought" feature because I spend even more cash on that damned site! But it is a very smart move and perhaps an example of Web 2.0 business at it's finest.


I like the idea, but putting the add-on items on the display with the big ticket items will reduce the impact of the featured titles and create clutter. It would be interesting to see a retailer take this concept and stock the impulse buy area near the cash-wrap with these add-on titles. Currently that area is filled with the bargain basement closeout titles, the $5 micro-books, calendars, etc. Most of those things are high margin low-cost products. I'd like to see a store test the idea of paving the path to the register with the full-priced books that customers buy with the featured products. It may look random to individual shoppers to have a personal finance book next to a gardening book next to a C# programmer's reference book, but the odds are good that at least one book in that path will stop every buyer on their way to pay if they're already buying one of the featured books.

Closeout Items

Thanks for the lessons and link to that post. They'll definitely help out, keep up the good work.

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