Merchandising is described as ‘the activity of promoting the sale of goods, especially by their presentation in retail outlets’. We are all familiar with bricks and mortar merchandising strategies, from enticing shop windows to impulse buy displays at the checkout desk. Merchandising is an important part of a successful ecommerce business too and is something that is often overlooked by ecommerce professionals. That said, larger merchants will often have a merchandising or trading team who are solely focused on store merchandising.

Merchandising is commonly associated with purely product ordering on category and product list pages, but in reality it’s broader than this and is encompasses the overall positioning and selling of products across a store. The below provides guidance around effective merchandising, with a big focus on merchandising use the Magento platform.

Category Page Merchandising

Although there’s more to merchandising, a big focus of this article is going to be on the promotion of products across category, product list and search pages, which is known as being a weakness of the Magento platform, in comparison to platforms such as Demandware, which provides better functionality for category page merchandising and has built-in personalisation capabilities.

In 2015, Magento announced that they’d integrated OnTap’s popular visual merchandising module into the core, but only for Magento Enterprise users. This is a big step forward for larger stores and a number of clients that I’ve worked with have said it makes their lives a lot easier. I’ll come onto this in more detail shortly.

Product ordering and promotion is something that requires close and regular attention, ensuring that best performing products are promoted more effectively than others. All too often, store owners simply add new products to categories as they are launched, without any thought as to where on the category page those products will be displayed. Magento does offer basic sort ordering for Community users (and EE users on a version pre 1.14), via a numeric sort order column on the Category Products tab. However, for categories containing many products, this can become a little unwieldy, and as ever, there are product sorting extensions available which can make a Magento admin’s life much easier. This also doesn’t allow for rule-based negating.

It’s important to review default product sort orders on a regular basis and from the front end of the store, to promptly spot when a category looks unbalanced or disjointed. I’d generally suggest looking at something like Visual Merchandiser, as detailed below.

Visual merchandiser allows for more advanced rule-based merchandising, as well as drag and drop merchandising at a category level. Magento Community merchants can also use Visual Merchandiser, which is available to purchase for $290. I’d suggest that this solution is worth the investment and will save you a lot of time in the long-term.

Visual Merchandiser for Magento

This screenshot above shows how Visual Merchandiser can be used for drag and drop re-ordering of products at a category-level, which is one of the main benefits of the module. Prior to it being built into the core of Magento Enterprise edition, Visual Merchandiser was already used by merchants from all over the world in order to improve user experience and help users find the products they’re looking for.

Another key feature of this module is the ability to add more complex data, allowing for things like stock, price and various other other attributes and custom data points to be built into ordering.

Personalisation

Personalisation has become an important part of merchandising over the last couple of years, with lots of proprietary and third party solutions being introduced to the market. Personalised product recommendations can help to significantly improve conversion rates and generally get users to the right products faster. Solutions like NOSTO can be integrated with Magento quickly and easily and can help to provide recommendations via the user’s activity on the site (e.g. products they’ve looked at or categories they’ve viewed) and general responses to products overall (e.g. most popular products over a set time period).

Lots of my clients use NOSTO because it’s very easy to use and it has a great reporting suite, but there are modules and extensions available too (e.g. this one from Aheadworks), as below. With NOSTO, you pay a commission on conversions coming from the recommendations, but the technology is very strong and does, from experience, deliver incremental value to the merchant. Other solutions worth looking at in this area include Listrak and Peerius.

Category tree structure

At the start of an ecommerce project, it’s important to spend time creating a sitemap / category structure that makes sense for your product types and also for your customers. Shoppers like simple, clear pathways to the items they want to buy and category trees which are overly complicated or confusing will represent a barrier for customers. Product attributes can help to inform how your category tree should be structured – illustrating how sub-categories should be used. For example, if you main category is men’s clothing and the key attributes for the products within category are things like product type (e.g. hoodie, jumper, trousers etc), size (small, medium, large etc), brand (Nike, Adidas etc), gender (mens or womens) and colour (red, black etc), you can build out your tree to allow for these. This approach is also very good for SEO, as it allows you to create strong pages for deeper keywords, such as Men’s Nike Hoodies, for example. I’d generally suggest using product attributes alongside search volume data for this.

Lots of merchants will create the top-level categories within Magento and then use layered navigation instead of static sub category pages – this is easy using Magento’s out of the box layered navigation solution, which uses product attributes. However, you should be using the dynamic filter pages to help target keywords for organic search, as they’re very thin pages and there’ll be thousands of them crawled and indexed as a result of the filter combinations. In an ideal world, these would not be indexed (and potentially not crawled, depending on how you approach this) and you’d create the static pages and build them into the navigation alongside the filtering.

The process for creating the sub categories is the same as for your main categories – you just build them into the tree. Once you’ve done this, you’ll need to find a solution to build them into your navigation, be it via a secondary navigation on category pages or via a mega nav etc.

Improving Magento’s site search

Magento is known for having poor search functionality out of the box, although they have announced that they’re moving to an elastic search solution (likely to just be for Enterprise users) as part of their upcoming Magento 2.1 release (expected in the next couple of months). Site search is very important for ecommerce stores of all sizes and merchandising search results is vitally important for user experience.

I’d suggest looking at a solution like Klevu, which both auto-merchandises search results and also provides advanced rule-based merchandising options for the admin. Klevu also has natural language processing capabilities, which means that query matching is far more advanced than just looking at meta data or the name of the product. Klevu can be integrated with Magento quickly and easily and is a freemium solution (so is free with paid options).

You can also adapt and optimise the Magento search in system > config – but it doesn’t offer the same level of functionality as some of the premium solutions out there. I’d also suggest monitoring the performance of search results in your analytics platform (reviewing how search usage is impacting the user journey etc) and also reporting on 0 result searches.

Improving your store navigation

Whilst Magento’s default themes handle drop down menus in their basic form, there are lots of themes and plugins that can facilitate for more complex navigation. This extension from MageStore is a good example, allowing merchants to choose from various top nav templates and customise via their built-in editor.

There are also generally more options if you’re using a premium theme (or something like Nucleus etc) – the Porto theme for example includes a customisable ‘Mega Menu’, which can enhance the visual appeal and usability of a Magento store.

Product page merchandising

The product detail page is probably the most important page in the purchasing journey and subtle changes can make a real difference to sales and conversions. Excellent product images / photos are vital, and if possible manufacturer’s stock photos should, ideally, be supplemented with photos taken in-house. I once worked with a luxury retailer who achieved a significant increase in conversion through hiring an in-house photographer who gradually added new images to their entire catalog. Product-level conversion rates increased massively because they were able to provide real detail around the product’s key features. They also achieved a further increase later on through increasing product videos for their top products.

Your rich media provides a unique differentiator between your store and your competitors’ stores. Product photos should also be as large and high quality as possible, and, unless staged in a lifestyle setting, products should be displayed in a consistent format across the store. Magento allows for multiple images per product, so ensure you provide as many clear, size-optimised images as possible and they’re focused on the key selling points of the product.

Product videos, as mentioned earlier, are another key area that can help to improve the likelihood of a user converting, and also make it easier for users to understand the key features of a product. Someone from Appliances Online once said that visitors that viewed a video on a product page were over 300% more likely to purchase the product. Magento 2 allows for product videos out of the box (simply by uploading the video or using a YouTube URL) and there are lots of extensions to allow for the same functionality in Magento 1.x.

Product descriptions also play an important part in conversions too. Magento out of the box uses a short description and a long description field. Writing unique product descriptions, rather than relying on manufacturer’s descriptions will reap benefits in the long term (particularly from an SEO standpoint). It’s important to remember that manufacturers write their product descriptions with their customers in mind, and not yours! From an SEO perspective, your product-level visiblity will be limited if you don’t have unique content and you’re also leaving yourself susceptible to bigger penalty issues.

Cross-sells, up-sells and related products

Product promotion is another key area that is often overlooked or under-utilised, but it can drive improved conversion rates and higher average order value if done properly.

Up-sells appear on the product detail page, and should generally be similar products to the one being viewed, but either more expensive or a higher specification. The aim of an up-sell is to offer the customer something better than they were originally going to buy, resulting in a higher sales value for the retailer. Typically, up-sells are pitched to the customer under a heading such as ‘You may also like’ or ‘similar products’.

Related products can also appear on the product detail page. The intention with related products is to encourage the customer to buy additional products as well as the product they are currently viewing. As an example, if a customer is viewing an armchair, a matching footstool might be listed as a related product. Amazon is the king of related products, but this is something that can work for any merchant if done properly.

Cross-sells are rather like those impulse buys at the till in a real-world store. They usually appear on the shopping cart page and are generally things that the customer might have overlooked. Batteries or ink cartridges are good examples of strong cross-sell items.

In an ideal world, each retailer would manage all of his cross-sells, upsells and related products manually, to ensure the best fit for optimal sales conversions. With a catalog of thousands of unique products, that may not be possible. I’d suggest NOSTO for this too – as it automates the process and is focused on optimising the results for conversions.

Unless your upsells, cross-sells and related products are manual, it is important to review them regularly. As products go out of stock or reach end of line, related products might simply disappear over time. By regularly checking on your best sellers to ensure they are optimised for higher sales conversions, it’s possible to make a significant improvement in average order values. Again, this is a good reason to look at something like NOSTO, which has a cartridge which can be slotted into different page templates. I’d also suggest using this for things like 404 pages.

Layered navigation in Magento

Layered navigation is heavily used in ecommerce these days, allowing users to filter product results at a category level. Layered navigation can be very effective from a user experience and conversion perspective, but it needs to be done properly. The out of the box layered navigation solution in Magento is usually very slow and is fairly unoptimised, but it can still work fine.

Lots of merchants use modules like Manadev, Bubble Shop or Amasty for improved layered navigation – these extensions provide additional features such as AJAX sorting (to improve speed), multi select options, scroll bars, visual filtering etc. If you do opt to use one of these extensions, make sure you prepare for the potential SEO issues – as changing the filter parameters can result in lots of dynamic pages being crawled and indexed by Google.

The key to successful layered navigation if you use the out of the box solution in Magento (and most of the third party options) is careful use of product attributes. If you’re sloppy with using attributes, this will result in a layered navigation system that is difficult to use and confusing for the customer. Attributes should only be defined as filterable if they are of real use to the end customer. Typical ‘refine by’ values might include colour, type and brand. It’s also common for Magento admins to have duplicate values in attributes or not correctly assign products, this will have a big impact on the user.

Magento offers many ways to merchandise products effectively. The key to sales success is to make the buying process as simple and stress-free as possible for the customer. By optimising the store for maximum product engagement, the retailer can make the best use of Magento’s core strengths. Ultimately this will result in a better overall user experience and higher conversion rates.

If you have any questions about this article or would like recommendations around any of the modules / solutions referenced, please feel free to email me (mail@paulnrogers.com). You can also leave a comment below.