Ecommerce brands often focus on having the widest range of products, eco-friendly packaging and free returns. Yet many are overlooking the vital first step: search.

Search might not be sexy, but the reality is that brands can lose shoppers in just three clicks. If shoppers can’t easily search and locate a product they want to purchase, they will go elsewhere. Through basic search failures a potential gain can rapidly turn into a realised loss.

However, for many of Australia’s eight million online shoppers, purchasing a product is just a part of the journey. Consumers now increasingly expect the ‘theatrics’ of in-store shopping at the click of a mouse.

An eCommerce tipping point

August 2020 was the biggest month in online shopping history according to Australia Post. In fact, between March and August this year, almost a million first-time online shoppers were spending money on eCommerce sites compared to the same time last year. COVID-19 has been an unexpected catalyst for the growth of the eCommerce industry. Forrester now estimates that by 2024 we could see 50% of all retail sales being online. The eCommerce opportunity is there for the taking.

For many online shoppers, old and new, search starts from a place of functionality; it enables them to easily navigate and find the end-product they want to purchase. If only it was that simple.

Shoppers are complex. Some arrive on an eCommerce site knowing exactly what they want to buy while others come with clear intentions. Many come ready to be inspired and then there are those who have no idea what they want. These various stages can even evolve during their time online. Finally, to make things just that little bit harder, shoppers don’t always say what they mean or mean what they say when they create a search query.

Shoppers’ expectations have evolved as a result of sophisticated search capabilities like Google.

The ‘Google-effect’

Four or five years ago, Google switched to using AI-based semantic search technology. By creating rules that define a searcher’s intent, and the contextual meaning of search terms, it is able to emulate the intricacies of language.

Consumers now expect the same sophisticated experience to continue when they land on an eCommerce site. The digital roadblock brands face is that traditional eCommerce search engines are not capable of matching consumer context to product information.

As a result, if a website’s search engine can’t match a customer’s query to relevant products or, even worse, any products at all, revenue generation opportunities are lost, confidence is compromised, and brand loyalty evaporates. Nearly half (46%)* of first-time eCommerce visitors are unlikely to come back if they don’t have a positive experience.

The theatre of retail has moved online

Bricks-and-mortar shops have long employed salespeople to understand and respond to the individual needs of every shopper. Making intelligent recommendations based on their working knowledge of the entire product range and guiding them towards items they hadn’t even thought about.

These rich ‘theatrical’ expectations have now moved online. Many shoppers don’t want a standard right-or-wrong response to their question or query. As a result, online shopper’s search queries have, for example, evolved from ‘dress’ to ‘Christmas party dress’ or ‘shampoo’ to ‘best shampoo for blonde hair’. Consumers want inspiration, advice, discovery and connected experiences embedded into the shopper journey.

The evolution of search has created brand-new opportunities for eCommerce retailers. One of the ways to transform these heightened expectations into commercial gain lies in AI.

The future, brought to you by AI

IDC predicts worldwide spending on cognitive and AI systems will reach more than USD $77 billion in 2022, up from US $24 billion in revenue last year. Gartner agrees. In a recent survey of executives from thousands of businesses worldwide, it found that AI implementation has grown a whopping 270% in the past four years and 37% in the past year alone. This industry shift is why Google recently launched its AI Platform Prediction and why Attraqt has brought its AI-powered search engine to Australia.

There’s an A and an I in retail

In eCommerce settings, AI-powered search functionality enables brands to understand, predict and respond to what their customers want or expect. For example, our ‘product fingerprint’ technology scans, comprehends and captures advanced data about every product available on a site. Enabling highly relevant products to be matched, even when their attributes are not explicitly mentioned by the customer in their search query.

Combining natural language processing, deep learning and computer vision, the algorithms build a comprehensive semantic representation of products and search queries. This allows AI to understand and continuously learn underlying customer intent based on context such as behaviour and actions.

What this means in practice is, where traditional search engines might present very limited, or even zero, results, an AI-powered search engine will recommend similar or highly relevant products from the catalogue.

Proof of concept trials around Attraqt’s AI-powered search engine have confirmed that combining its AI capabilities with existing solutions can generate between 20%-60% higher conversion rates and reduce zero result by 97%.

It’s showtime!

Smart search will support consumers on their path to purchase. But in a radically changing eCommerce world, purchasing a product is now just the start of a shopper’s brand journey. AI holds the power to deliver memorable moments, personalised engagements and connected brand experiences; bringing the theatre of retail to the fingertips of millions of shoppers online.

Russell Godin is regional director for Asia Pacific at Attraqt