The Evolution of Merchandising: Adapting Strategies from Brick-and-Mortar to Ecommerce

While retail merchandisers used to solely focus on turning physical spaces into enchanting realms that told the story of the brand and products, they must now adapt their craft for a virtual audience. Here's how.

The Evolution of Merchandising: Adapting Strategies from Brick-and-Mortar to Ecommerce

In today’s retail environment, if your company doesn’t have online branding… well, winning market share is going to be a real uphill battle. In decades past, that meant eye-catching display windows that would stop passersby, or elaborate display stands to draw shoppers toward certain product sections. But when it comes to today’s retail, ecommerce branding is proving to be a difficult task for merchandisers who not only have to compete with the shop across the street, but every brand in every country. Whew!

So as the retail landscape continues to undergo its digital transformation, the role of the merchandiser is evolving with a shift as significant as the move from radio to television (and now to streaming, we suppose). But much of the principles of merchandising remain similar. While retail merchandisers used to solely focus on turning physical spaces into enchanting realms that told the story of the brand and products, they must now adapt their craft for a virtual audience. The essence of their role remains the same—to draw in and convert shoppers—but the tools and techniques have evolved to fit the digital backdrop.

Data-Driven Insights: The New Cornerstone of Online Merchandising

The great thing about ecommerce? Everything is measurable! The bad thing about ecommerce? Everything is measurable. Let’s break that down a bit.

In general, it’s a good thing that intuition gives way to data-driven decision-making in modern retail. Traditional merchandisers relied heavily on foot traffic and direct customer interaction to gauge preferences and adjust in-store displays accordingly. While there were some ways to collect metrics, it was typically a big guessing game and led to a good deal of trial and error.

Online, these physical cues are replaced by a wealth of retail data and analytics that offer a deep dive into customer behavior. Today’s tools now allow merchandisers to track every click, hover, and scroll, translating these into insights that predict demand, identify trends, and personalize experiences. By harnessing this data, ecommerce merchandisers can forecast with greater accuracy, ensuring that inventory levels match consumer demand without the costly missteps of overstocking or stockouts.

But that also can lead to a “paralysis of analysis” where too much data can hinder decision making. What part of the conversion funnel should the store optimize for? What efficiencies should a team prioritize? Which retail KPIs are actually the most important?

That’s why a data analytics tool like 42 is key to pulling actionable insights. It’s not enough to just be data-mindful. It’s crucial to be data-driven, as in letting the data lead to action and wins.

For example, 42 can show merchants metrics like item page views, item conversion rates, and even item add-to-cart rates; metrics that give insight into which products are viewed the most online by visitors, which in turn lead to actions that move the needle. If this specific style and size of sundress has a high add-to-cart rate, but a low conversion rate, you know your team needs to do something extra to nudge the sale. Perhaps it’s throwing in a 5% discount code for that specific item, or simply reminding visitors of that item in a future visit.

Added-to-Cart Rate Item Report - 42

Translating Visual Merchandising to the Digital Realm

Just as window displays and store layouts captivate shoppers in physical stores, the ecommerce experience relies heavily on visual appeal—but it must be adapted for the digital eye. This translates to clean, compelling user interfaces (UI) that invite interaction and user experiences (UX) that make navigation seamless and intuitive. In fact, better UI/UX has shown to increase conversions by 200% to 400%!

The challenge for digital merchandisers is to create online environments that are both visually appealing and easy to use. High-quality images, thoughtful product descriptions, and virtual try-ons are just the beginning. The layout should guide the shopper through the website as naturally as a well-designed store, with strategically placed promotions and products that are both discoverable and desirable.

Source: ASRV

ASRV’s product pages are a great example of adapting the visual element of physical stores to the online store. It’s not just that the interface is clean and the images are HQ, but they also speak to their target audience of men who are action-oriented who want a no-nonsense shopping experience. It’s personalized to what they want out of ecommerce, which leads to merchandising success.

Speaking of which…

Personalization: The Ultimate Ecommerce Tailor

Perhaps nowhere is the shift from general to granular more pronounced than in the personalization capabilities of ecommerce. In physical stores, personalization might mean recognizing a return customer or suggesting products based on casual conversation. Online, advanced algorithms analyze past behavior to offer real-time, hyper-personalized shopping experiences. Ecommerce platforms can leverage customer data to present tailored product recommendations, adjust marketing messages, and even predict future purchases.

This level of customization extends beyond the website into targeted email and SMS campaigns that reach customers with personalized offers and updates, significantly enhancing the likelihood of conversion. Again, it all hinges on gathering and analyzing quality customer data via the CRM and data analytics tools at a brand’s disposal. Personalization can only happen with good data, and merchandisers should embrace the tech that can turn site visits into actionable insights for each individual shopper.

To fully embrace ecommerce, merchandisers must think beyond the tactics that work for brick & mortar locations and towards a modern, data-driven strategy. This includes continuous A/B testing to refine tactics, integrating social proof through reviews and user-generated content, ensuring that all digital touchpoints are coherent and consistently branded, and spending time inside the data collected from both online and in-store visits. It’s about creating a cohesive journey that mirrors the thoughtfulness of a well-merchandised store, but in a digital format.

The transformation from traditional brick-and-mortar merchandising to ecommerce is not just a shift in platform, but a considerable rethinking of how to engage and satisfy customers online. As retail continues to tilt towards digital, the skills of a merchandiser must also expand to encompass the analytical, the visual, and the personalized. The goal remains the same: to create compelling shopping experiences that drive sales and build loyalty. However, the methods must evolve to meet the demands of a digital-first audience, proving that in the age of ecommerce, the role of the merchandiser is more crucial than ever.