The world of digital merchandising is undergoing rapid and dramatic change; and as with every rapid and dramatic change, there are two ways to look at the shift:

  1. This is the end of the world as we know it and all is lost.

  2. With dramatic change comes tremendous opportunity: How about we jump on this and see if we can be the ones who seize the competitive advantage?

Let’s forget option No. 1, because if that's what you believe, there isn’t much point in planning for the future. Option No. 2, however — now there’s some fun in that approach. As luck would have it, we’re living in a time when the sophistication of the tools — digital heat maps, co-view clarity and instant insights — have caught up with the data and the human intelligence necessary to revolutionize site merchandising. 2258988806_906949f2b7_z Today’s site merchandiser, for instance, has the chance to grow into a powerful merchandiser who is also a site optimization expert. Consider category pages — just one element (though an important element) of an e-commerce site. Based on our conversations and experience with a number of our customers, we’d like to offer a blueprint for using data to ensure that your category pages are performing at the top of their game. It’s an inquiry-based model, where you, the site merchandiser, take on the role of investigator — an investigator, who in this case, has been called in to solve the mystery of a decline in the performance of one of your site’s category pages. We’ve broken the process down into four steps, informed by a series of questions. The steps:

  1. Identify opportunities, which often come to light in the form of degraded performance.

  2. Diagnose the problems that are leading to the degraded performance.

  3. Find insights by analyzing the data that reveals the reasons for the problems.

  4. Take action by addressing the root cause of the problems you’ve diagnosed.

We know. Say something you didn’t already know. But the key here is to ask the right questions. (Inquiry-based, remember?) Asking the right question will lead you through the four steps and toward the promised land of optimized category pages. The questions:

  1. Is the issue recent or related to a specific channel or device? Use your data to look for patterns or to segment performance by channel and device. Is one channel or device clearly underperforming the others? What factors beyond the category might be affecting the category?

  2. What is the customer intent? Your site is one of the world’s greatest focus groups. If you’re curious about what your customers expect when they come to your category page, examine what they do when they interact with it. Use your data and analytic tools to determine how customers are coming to your category. Are they coming from another page on your site? Through site search? Are they clicking in through unexpected categories? What particular customer journey resulted in the most conversions? What journey resulted in the least?

  3. Where do shoppers go when they leave the category page? Does their behavior indicate that there are relevant products that consumers are searching for that aren’t in your category, but should be. Do shoppers’ actions indicate you should be linking to other products? As part of your investigation, look to see what site searches visitors conduct after they land on your category page. Are they looking for something they’d expect to find in your category, but which you didn’t think belonged there?

  4. What products are customers viewing along with the products on your category page? Are there opportunities to add useful and strategic products to the page?

  5. Are they viewing other categories along with the category page in question? Are you missing opportunities to cross-promote those other categories?

  6. Are the products that are high-performing and closely associated with your category prominently displayed on the category page? These are your winners. Don’t hide them from your customers.

  7. Are customers finding/buying products in similar categories? Use your data to see where on the site are those who buy items in this category actually buying them from.

OK, it’s a lot of questions, but the answers yielded by these questions will increase your expertise. You may not want, or need, to ask all of these questions all of the time. But the more you ask, the more likely you are to develop a comprehensive view of the site and how consumers interact with it. It will give you the information you need to make recommendations beyond merchandising. You’ll have insights into SEO performance. You’ll be able to weigh in on SEO decisions and help form e-mail marketing campaigns based on what you see in the real world in real time. And of course, you’ll be able to take immediate action to improve your category pages. For instance, depending on what your investigation turns up, you might:

  • Modify your category navigation, adding filters based on themes inspired by visitors’ page clicks and the results from co-viewed queries.

  • Improve category photographs and images based on clicks, while adding images, links and even text to your category, based on co-viewed products.

  • Add products to the category based on products that were co-viewed by shoppers, even though they weren’t in the category at the time.

  • Cross-promote your category based on the other categories that consumers viewed just after visiting your category.

  • Re-arrange the products on your category page, boosting those that were popular and burying those that were initially placed too prominently.

  • Cross-sell products into categories that you know are closely related to your category, based on the customer behavior during sessions that included your category.

They are the sort of moves that could mean substantial increases in revenue — and as importantly — untold happy customers, who will be more likely to return on their next digital shopping excursion. They are also the sort of moves that can’t help but foster optimism — optimism that rapid change doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. In fact, it feels a lot more like this is just the beginning. Tammy Sanders is BloomReach's training manager for Compass. Photo of Monopol-e-Commerce board by Daniel Broche published under Creative Commons license.