Direct-to-consumer brands can win customers by matching their unique following and product with a differentiated online purchasing experience.

JoAnn Martin, vice president of marketing, Searchspring

The retail industry has been completely turned on its head as shoppers’ needs and preferences have changed dramatically in response to the coronavirus pandemic. This sudden pivot in strategy and operations has put direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands in a unique position. 

Achieving differentiation in the DTC environment was tricky even before the “new normal,” given the constant challenge of competitors encroaching on market share, and the increased pressure to compete with the likes of retail behemoths like Amazon and Walmart. Now, DTCs must also manage potential supply chain interruptions, workforce reductions and a possible decrease in consumer spending. How can DTC brands achieve true differentiation and win over consumers despite these hurdles? 

DTCs ultimately can win by pairing their unique following and product alongside a differentiated online purchasing experience that others cannot easily replicate. In other words, DTC’s most significant opportunity is to differentiate by building a consumer connection through unique merchandising. 

For DTC brands, differentiation lies in merchandising

Strong merchandising is the key to guided experiences that will help shoppers find the products they need. A traditional DTC brand with no physical storefront requires a different merchandising approach based on core product sets. This means drawing consumers to the site and creating an affinity with particular products, even though consumers cannot touch and test the products until they have landed on their doorsteps. Therefore, differentiation through merchandising lies in the following steps:


Building a consumer base through smart content

Without a physical storefront, the dynamic of “window shopping” takes on a whole new meaning. For today’s consumers, mobile devices now serve as the new storefront windows. DTCs can capitalize on this by utilizing channels such as social media, videos and blogs to quickly deliver smart and engaging content meant to garner consumer interest.

Just as shoppers browse through stores and products during window shopping, digital content can initially serve to provide a quick glimpse of a particular product as well as tell the brand’s story – e.g., how the brand came to be, sustainability efforts and more. It’s about building a story around the brand’s core set of top-performing products and showcasing the reason, mission and passion that went into creating the product and the company. Unique brands that come to mind which are doing this exceptionally well include Wildfang and Patagonia.

Arriving at the right product faster

Once the consumer is interested in purchasing the product, it’s time to help shoppers find what they are looking for in a convenient, personalized and timely manner. The DTC can help provide frictionless browsing experiences with technologies that offer smarter spelling and autofill capabilities that account for human error. Algorithms can lead the consumer through guided selling, exposing relevant products to the shopper during their journey. 

DTCs can also help customers find what they are looking for through a series of questions, or easy-to-use facets that help the shopper arrive at the product faster. Doubling down on product information, education, and discovery can help to bring the in-person, curated experience to online shoppers. Features such as live chat, how-to articles and video tutorials can also help DTCs create more personalized experiences for the shopper.  


Providing continuous relevancy

As DTCs continue to build their merchandising strategy, they will need to fine-tune product results to continue providing relevancy to each shopper. This isn’t a “set it and forget it” optimization technique. Month after month, the needs of shoppers and the environment evolve. Merchandising tools now allow retailers to customize the arrangement of products and navigation dynamically and intuitively. Moving best-selling products to the top of a category, while keeping out-of-stock items on the last page can now be done in a few clicks. With controls retailers can use easily, customized pages can be created in minutes, allowing marketing campaigns to be off-the-cuff and reactive.

Strengthening customer connections

Responding to the needs of shoppers and guiding them to products that are right for them is easier than ever, but it’s an opportunity that will be ignored by the likes of Amazon and Walmart, giving DTCs the edge through a personalized merchandising strategy. To stay in front of the competition and establish a strong customer connection, modern brands must make merchandising a priority. By doing this, DTCs can ensure that consumers discover the most relevant set of products without having to work hard for it.

Searchspring offers a site search and merchandising platform for online retailers.