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Quick tips to boost your ecommerce upselling

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7th Mar 2014
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Upselling and cross-selling are features of just about every ecommerce website. Done well, they add value to your customers and to your online sales transactions. The biggest risk is to see upselling as an opportunity to grab as much cash as possible in one transaction. While extra revenue has to be the ultimate goal, the way to get there is through enhancing the customer experience and offering great service.

Inappropriate upselling can distract, annoy and frustrate your customers, and can devalue your brand. Most importantly, poorly executed upselling causes abandoned shopping carts and lost transactions.

Upselling and cross-selling

Let’s deal with the terminology first. Cross-selling means persuading somebody to buy items related to their purchase. ‘Do you want fries with that?’ and ‘Do you need batteries, as they’re not included?’ would be typical off-line examples.

Upselling means persuading somebody to purchase a more expensive version of their selected product. ‘For an extra 99p you can upgrade to large fries and a large drink instead of the standard size.’ The two terms get used interchangeably. Often, particularly in ecommerce websites, the term upselling is used for both scenarios, which is what I’ll do here for simplicity.

Sometimes though, it’s important to be clear about whether you are trying to cross-sell or upsell as it could affect the design of your ecommerce website and the way you manage your content. More about the importance of good data management tools for effective ecommerce upselling later.

Good sales technique

It doesn’t matter if you are on or off-line. Irrelevant and clumsy attempts to upsell don’t work and can devalue your brand. 

Here are another couple of off-line examples to illustrate my point: I recently went into a budget shop on the High Street. After ringing up my items, the assistant asked whether I needed any stamps or mobile phone top-ups. I didn’t, but, as with many people, these are the sort of things I might forget to buy while I’m out. The offer came across as helpful.

On the other hand a well-known chain of newsagents and stationers seems to offer me a family-sized bar of chocolate every time I buy a newspaper. This doesn’t come across as: we have thought about you and what you might find useful, the message is we’ve got all this chocolate to get rid of, for heaven’s sake buy some!

Customer-focused ecommerce upselling

If your ecommerce website is handling upselling in a customer-focused way, offering intelligent suggestions based on products customers have selected or looked at, is likely to result in a more positive response. The transaction values and customer satisfaction are both likely to increase.

The risk with upselling through ecommerce websites is that once people are ready to buy, your site then displays a number of random items, possibly driven by inventory levels rather than customer interest. In this scenario you’ll be very lucky to get a good response. Evidence suggests that poorly executed upselling results in decreased sales as visitors become distracted, frustrated, irritated and eventually end up leaving the site with no purchase at all.

Typical upselling on ecommerce websites displays items under a heading like, ‘Frequently purchased with’, ‘Customers who bought this also purchased’ or ‘You might also like’. The first two are typical of a cross-selling approach, whilst the third is classic upselling. There are some important points to consider before a decision is made:

  • Options need to be logical: If I’ve selected a camera I might expect to see a case, batteries, lens cleaner or even a tripod. I might wonder what is going on if you show me a mini HIFI system. Worse still, I might go off and start looking at HIFIs, forgetting about my shopping cart and possibly ending up on a competitor’s site.
  • Spec up: A good upselling option would be to show me the same brand of camera but the next specification up. If you’re really sophisticated you could show me the additional cost and key differences in the specification so I can see what extra value I’d get for my money. There’s also a debate about whether it’s best to promote alternative or complementary products. The answer to this will almost certainly depend on the sector and customer demographic.
  • Offer alternatives and complementary items: On a fashion eCommerce site, for example, alternative products would be the same style of trousers in different colours (people may well decide to buy the blue and the brown). Complementary products would be jackets or shirts that you could put with the trousers you have chosen. Again, it’s something to be clear about in your eCommerce strategy.

Data and content management

On many ecommerce websites more effort seems to go into how options are displayed rather than what is displayed. I would argue that focusing on the ‘what’ is usually more productive. An effective content management system will learn from customer behaviour and automate much of the process of building relationships between products. The way that data is managed and organised should support the process of making logical associations. Your CMS must also make it easy to review and manage product relationships manually. 

Effective upselling is largely a data-driven exercise, so that there is a clear logic to the opportunities presented to customers. I wonder how many ecommerce CMSs and upselling plug-ins are really created with this as a central feature, and how often they are just engines to load additional choices into the shopping cart.

Where to upsell

Here’s another area for debate and one where different sites adopt different approaches. Some sites offer upselling opportunities from the shopping cart and some don’t.  It’s an area where methodical split testing can be very productive.  Sometimes there’s logic in doing it, such as moving people up to a total sale value that qualifies for a discount or free delivery; and sometimes it’s best to move people on to the checkout process as efficiently and directly as possible.

The best solution may depend on the type of products you are selling, the complexity of your product range and the type of customers you have. The risk is always that people will leave the shopping cart, wander off into other product areas and run out of time or interest before moving into the checkout process.

My advice is if you’re going to upsell in the cart, focus on a very limited but highly relevant set of options (back to data management again), with a clear logic for offering them through the cart rather than the product selection page. Products with complex options, that are likely to make customers leave the cart and search for more details on the product, should be avoided.

Aran Reeks is lead ecommerce developer of Evosite Ltd. 

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