From pricing to shipping, marketing to sales tax collection, there are a host of automation technologies available to online retailers that can boost sales and reduce costs.

Peter Horadan, chief technology officer and executive vice president of engineering, Avalara

Peter Horadan, chief technology officer and executive vice president of engineering, Avalara

If you’re an online retailer – or want to be – your first steps are likely implementing a product catalog and shopping cart solution. But after that, how do you attract and keep customers? How do you gain an advantage over the competition? The answer is more automation.

Consider that online shoppers today expect unprecedented immediacy. From instant access to representatives via a built-in chat application to product comparisons and reviews, to same-day shipping, consumers want more information and more services – and they want them now. At the same time, they want greater trust in their vendors. They want to know they won’t be defrauded and that their private information, including credit card numbers, will be protected.

As a result, many consumers are shopping primarily on major marketplaces, such as Amazon, eBay, Etsy, Jet and Overstock. Shoppers are more confident these companies will deliver an optimal customer experience – and they are likely right. These marketplaces use automation strategies to deliver fast and consistent access to information and services.

Fortunately, automation technologies are available to online retailers of every size, and if you want to compete with the major marketplaces, or just with the other players in your niche, you’ve got to start thinking about which automation strategies are right for you.

Finding the sweet spot for pricing is essential to creating a competitive edge.

One of the most interesting automation opportunities is automated pricing. Nearly all merchants compete on price with others. Many buyers are looking for the best overall price, including product cost and shipping. Major marketplaces have product pricing that fluctuates by the minute as sellers compete to offer the best prices. The rest of retail needs to catch up and if you are basing your price on a manual process, instead of an automated review of what other merchants are doing in real time, you are at a disadvantage.

Here are other examples of automation that have become expected today to offer a modern experience for your customers:


  • Recommendations – Product recommendations can create deeper engagement with customers and encourage more sales by directing customers to products that meet their particular profile. Based on sophisticated algorithms that predict which products to offer, the recommendation engine typically presents products related to one the customer is already viewing.
  • Reviews – Ratings and reviews are one of the simplest ways to market your products. There are now services that will automate sending an email to customers to ask them to write a review.
  • Pricing – Automated pricing engines identify competitive pricing and discounting trends and recommend pricing and repricing strategies designed to increase sales and customer satisfaction. Finding the sweet spot for pricing is essential to creating a competitive edge.
  • Remarketing – Remarketing is a way to connect with shoppers who have visited your site but not purchased a product. This strategy enables you to show relevant ads as the shopper visits other sites. This can help you reconnect with them and draw them back to your site.
  • Advertising – Tools such as Google Merchant Center let sellers feature their products in Google Shopping campaigns. Once you upload your product data to the service, millions of shoppers can see your online and in-store inventory.

Customer Relationship Management

From Salesforce to Zoho CRM, a variety of tools are available to meet your feature demands and pocketbook. Some of the key capabilities you should be looking for include:

  • Email Marketing – Reach out directly to customers and potential customers with information and offers. Make sure your solution tracks when your emails are opened and links that are clicked on. You should also be able to produce reports that provide insight into which emails are the most successful. It’s best to spend the time to create interesting content that your market will want to read, instead of something they will immediately throw away as spam.
  • Surveys – Surveys appeal to customers because they provide an opportunity to voice their opinions. They are also invaluable to retailers because when thoughtfully crafted they provide insight into what customers really want in the way of products and services. Make sure your survey solution makes survey set-up easy, handles responses, and enables you to produce a variety of reports.
  • Social Media – Social media has become an essential tool for online retailers to get people talking about their brand. Social media automation comes in the form of online solutions that let you track conversations across multiple channels, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, from a single dashboard. Some solutions will identify social influencers in your market and automatically identify, customize and upload content for you.
  • Chat – When a user is shopping on your site, what happens if they have questions? You provide a phone number, but that means the potential customer has to switch from browsing to calling. Many today prefer just clicking on a link on the website and starting a text chat with a representative. Some chat solutions include the ability to automate the initial gathering of information so the user can be directed to the right agent.

Shipping and Tax

For online retailers, successful shipping and delivery are just as important as making the initial sale. Shipping delays and unnecessarily high costs are a sure way to frustrate and lose customers.

  • Shipping – Customers have come to expect a clear description of when their product will arrive. Integrate with online shipping tools to get clear information about costs and delivery timing. Make sure your shipping solution includes automated shipping recovery. If a shipper is not delivering on its service level agreement (SLA), this service automates filing a claim to get credit.
  • Sales tax – Keeping track of sales tax regulations and rates can be a nightmare for companies shipping across the U.S. Companies that rely on manual processes for tracking rates and applying sales tax to purchases often get it wrong, which exposes them to audits and fines. Make sure you implement a solution that automatically calculates sales tax based on the most up-to-date regulations and rate data.

What does all this mean for your e-commerce business? Here are four steps to consider when looking for automation solutions.

  1. Choose what to automate – Review other sites, large and small, and especially your competitors. Reach out to your existing customers to see what capabilities they’d like to see. Then prioritize the automation strategies you’d like to deploy so you can target the most important ones first and manage your budget.
  2. Comparison shop – There are many automation solutions on the market offering different capabilities and prices. By understanding exactly what you want to automate, you can understand whether a vendor’s solution falls short or is overkill. Be sure to check how difficult the solution is to implement, and how hard it would be to change the solution if you are dissatisfied. Read customer case studies posted on the vendor’s site and look for independent reviews on other sites.
  3. Ensure interoperability – Make sure each new solution will integrate properly and easily with your existing solutions.
  4. Stay in control – You can’t afford to lose customers to a frustrating experience on your site. Fully test new solutions before going live and consider spacing out when you add new services to make sure customers aren’t overwhelmed by the changes.

Don’t let your store fall short of the experience and automation today’s customers have come to expect. Start your e-commerce automation journey as soon as possible.

Avalara is a provider of tax-collection software.