How Brands Can Bridge the ‘Experience Gap’ to Engage Online Shoppers

Once the pandemic is over for good (thankfully), we’ll have the chance to process what happened over the past few years. This goes for the lessons learned by retail brands as they operated through one crisis-induced challenge after the next, navigating the ups and downs of the pandemic as best they could, while meeting unprecedented customer demand.

With so much activity online at the height of the pandemic — during which many people gladly took to shopping online for convenience and peace of mind — retailers have a windfall of customer data that can be leveraged to deliver better and more engaging shopping experiences.

However, according to findings in our 2022 Relevance Report, retail brands aren’t yet availing themselves of this actionable customer data — or if they are, they aren’t yet using it to deliver compelling customer experiences.

One key finding from our report revealed that just 6% of consumers think online shopping experiences are always relevant — proof positive that retailers are still struggling to provide the relevant online shopping experiences their customers have come to expect.


Despite COVID-19 restrictions loosening or being eliminated entirely in recent months, shopping online has become a “baked in” behavior and remains consumers’ primary mode of buying everything from essentials to patio furniture, and more.

The question is whether retailers can overcome the “experience gap.” This is the expectation consumers have about their online experiences versus the ones they have in store. One surprising finding from our survey confirmed that consumers have high expectations for ecommerce brands: 93% expect the online experience to be at least equal to, if not better than, in-store.

The Gen Z Factor

With an eye on what’s going on in the global retail market, brands must also pay close attention to today’s trendsetters, especially Gen Z consumers. There is plenty of data to help with “trendspotting,” including a new semi-annual teen research report from Piper Sandler which found that this generation remains enthusiastic about shopping online.

The report noted a 9% uptick in spending by female Gen Zers which led the growth, and not only in fashion purchases. Gen Z shoppers continue to be a major factor in the accelerated shift to digital commerce, with 95% of upper-income females shopping online and 91% of males doing the same.

This shift to ecommerce amongst the Gen Z population may not be a shocking revelation, but when you factor in findings from our survey, which included responses from 4,000 adults in the U.S. and UK, there are ample reasons why brands should look to this generation to help craft the future of relevant experiences.

We found Gen Z shoppers are more likely than other generations to pay more if they’re able to find products more quickly (60% of Gen Z versus 52% overall). The challenge for brands is finding the right mix of experiences that, when combined, make their products more easily and quickly discoverable before shoppers with little time (and little patience) “bounce” to another retailer selling similarly priced fashions and accessories.

These three strategies can “move the needle” to boost engagement and conversions for all visitors, including Gen Zers:

1. AI-powered personalized recommendations.

Older generations of recommendation engines were good at identifying correlations between shoppers and products; however, this proved to be ineffective because shoppers were shown “cookie cutter” product options that didn’t factor in individual preferences.

Advanced product recommendations, powered by AI, do a better job of exploring customer-to-product relationships by combining customer data, including intent, and design tools to drive up revenue, conversion rates and customer lifetime value while reducing abandonment. This allows brands to learn more about their customers and determine which of the products from their product catalogs — which may number in the hundreds or thousands of items — will drive actual sales performance.

There are times when retailers may lack the customer or product data they think they’ll need to create a personalized experience, generally because of a “cold start” product that’s a new item they carry or new customers that are checking out as a guest. With advancements in AI technology, personalized recommendations can still be achieved with minimal traditional data sources.

2. Mobile search optimization.

Mobile commerce is the future of ecommerce. eMarketer reports that consumers will buy more via mobile, with 85% of sales taking place on a smartphone. To capture more of this market share, brands will need to invest time and resources into optimizing the mobile shopping experience, including the mobile search function.

Search should be easy to use, produce relevant results, and must provide the same personalized experiences shoppers receive on a desktop computer or laptop. The mobile experience may be the only touch point the visitor has on a retailer’s site, therefore optimizing it can result in less search-related abandonments, easier product discovery, and ultimately, more purchases.

Brands can leverage easy-to-use filters as a part of mobile search, utilize predictive autofill, and regularly test the relevance of search results to ensure they’re delivering a compelling mobile shopping experience.

3. Product badging + social proof.

Combining product badging and social proof is a highly effective strategy that can boost consumer confidence and successfully turn a browser into a buyer. The use of badges such as “best seller,” “just in,” or “running low” can communicate that a product is a trending item, exciting and new, or that stock is running low, giving shoppers the little nudge they need to make a decision on a purchase. Using badges shows visitors what other customers are putting into their cart, increasing their confidence in buying it as well.

Consumer behavior is constantly in flux. The challenge for retail brands is to consistently leverage the customer data they have on hand to continuously refine and optimize the shopping experience they’re delivering to visitors in almost real time. The data-centric brands that get personalization right will be rewarded with appreciative customers who will return again and again.

Tracey Ryan O’Connor has been in the world of digital marketing, ecommerce and personalization for 20+ years at companies such as Reflektion, Neustar and Oracle. Most recently she was Chief Revenue Officer at personalization platform Qubit, where she was responsible for sales, solutions, marketing, customer success and strategy. In October 2021, Qubit was acquired by Coveo (TSX:CVO), a Relevance Platform and applied AI leader that transforms digital experiences with AI-powered search. recommendations, and personalization. At Coveo, O’Connor serves as Group VP, Commerce.

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