Online ‘invisibility’ costing high street retailers

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Following the launch of this year’s John Lewis Christmas advert, which tells the touching story of Elton John and his first piano, pianos were the most searched for item on John Lewis’ website. 100 pianos and keyboards were purchased on its website in three days as a result. However, despite an increase in overall sales in the days after the advert, John Lewis recorded a 6.8 per cent dip in weekly sales as compared to the same week last year.

The UK high street is having a torrid time. With chain after chain shutting up shop and profit warnings making the news on a near daily basis, it is clear that if traditional high street retailers are going to prosper or even survive, they must find new ways of attracting customers, especially in the face of ever-rising competition from online-first businesses.  

The end of ‘if we build it, they will come,’ the start of location marketing

Historically, high street stores have taken a ‘if we build it, they will come’ approach to marketing. Huge store fronts in prime locations were enough to get customers through the door.

This is no longer the case. Instead of walking up and down the high street, looking up at well-dressed shop windows, today’s consumers are much more likely to be based in a coffee shop, looking down at their mobiles, searching online for what to buy and where to buy it from. Indeed, 2017 research from the eCommerce Foundation found that an incredible 88 per cent of customers search online for local products and services before going on to make an in-store purchase.  

It seems that even customers who remain loyal to the high street, of which there are many, increasingly rely on the online world to inform their purchasing decisions. Welcome to the world of the ‘omni-shopper.’

Even the biggest stores are invisible

In August 2018, Uberall, a location marketing technology specialist, conducted research into the accuracy of online location search results for the UK’s largest department stores – many of which are finding current market conditions particularly challenging – to assess how visible they are to would-be omni-shoppers.  

The sample included all 573 stores operated by Debenhams, Harrods, Fenwick, Fortnum & Mason House of Fraser, John Lewis Partnership, Marks & Spencer, and Selfridges (with the exception of forecourt stores and M&S Food stores). The store information on their corporate websites was cross referenced against information on the four major directory listings – Google My Business, Facebook, Bing and Yelp – to check that all stores were present and correct.

While the results varied between directories, the overriding conclusion was that these brands are struggling to manage the online listings for their multiple stores, with the vast majority either missing or containing inaccurate data.

Visibility varies between directories

Unsurprisingly, the research showed that UK department stores are prioritising their listings on Google My Business, with 90 per cent of shops showing up on the directory. That does of course mean one in ten stores are completely invisible to those customers who rely on local search results to find what they want in-store. Furthermore, less than 15 per cent of these listings were accurate, with store names and street addresses the most common inconsistencies.

Managing Facebook listings - which often include a high proportion of user-generated content and reviews – is also causing a headache for stores. Approximately 14 per cent of storefront pages were missing or unclaimed on Facebook, while the remaining 86 per cent contained information that was different than that provided on the brand’s official website.

Far fewer stores were listed on Bing, with just over a quarter of stores (27.5 per cent) missing or unclaimed and the remainder all containing some inaccurate data. This might indicate that brands are put off by the strict formatting demands of this search engine. However, with Bing powering Alexa – and with more and more consumers relying on voice search to find what they want – retailers that can crack Bing have an opportunity to boost footfall.

Yelp receives the least attention from department stores, with almost half (46.5 per cent) missing or unclaimed. However, accuracy rates for Yelp listings were comparatively good, with just 37.5 per cent containing discrepancies when compared with the data provided on the retailers’ own websites. While Yelp is less popular here in the UK market than elsewhere, it shouldn’t be overlooked. Google and other search engines do cross-reference their own results with Yelp to verify their accuracy. Retailers that focus on improving their Yelp listings should see a boost in their general online visibility.   

Why even small inconsistencies matter

Retailers may ask themselves, does it really matter if there’s a small inaccuracy between how a store’s name, address, phone number and opening times are listed on its own site and how this information appears on a directory? Won’t customers know where to find them anyway?

The answer is – at least for the growing tribe of omni-shoppers – not necessarily. Discrepancies around store opening times can leave shoppers confused and frustrated, especially when they turn up at a store they believe to be open, only to find that the doors are firmly locked. Inaccuracies can be equally frustrating for stores. If an online directory says they close at 6pm when they are actually trading until 7pm, they will be losing out on valuable business as shoppers go elsewhere.

In addition to making it harder for consumers to access the right information, any inconsistency between the data held on these various directories and on proprietary websites negatively impacts overall search results, causing store listings to fall down search engine rankings.

This is because search engines continually cross-reference directories to verify their results; if the information they find matches, all well and good. However, the slightest variation could bump them off page one or could mean they don’t show up on Google’s coveted local three pack. So when consumers are inspired by John Lewis’ £7 million ad to buy a piano, if they Google “piano,” inaccurate listings could mean that a retailer misses out completely. This will have a direct impact on the amount of money going through their tills.

In summary, consistency is key.

Improving consistency & visibility

The process of managing and updating information about multiple stores, not to mention keeping an eye on customer reviews and other user-generated content, is onerous and time-consuming, so it’s no wonder that discrepancies arise, particularly for retailers – like the department stores in this research sample – which operate a large number of stores.

Those that can find effective strategies to both automate and centralise the way they update and monitor these various listings should see immediate benefits. By ensuring store data is always up-to-date and accurate – as well as replicated across all the inter-dependent directories that together influence and inform the buying decisions of a new generation of high street shoppers – retailers have a have a fantastic opportunity to boost their footfall and turn around their fortunes.  

Daniel Mathew, vice president, Uberall
Image Credit: Pressmaster / Shutterstock