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If consumers are sheep, e-commerce firms need to be shepherds! Lessons from the experience of Virgin Experience Days

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan June 20, 2023
It's time to herd the flock, argues Mark Williams, Head of E-Commerce.


 I believe that digital consumers will overwhelmingly transform into sheep by 2025.

An attention-grabbing statement from Mark Williams, Head of E-commerce at Virgin Experience Days, the UK’s leading experience gift company. The firm offers over 4000 products in the UK, and a further 5000 in the US where the firm trades as Virgin Experience Gifts. Customers of both the UK and US arms can buy experiences ranging from indoor sky-diving and rage rooms, through to afternoon teas and fine dining. 

Selling this stuff is “really fun”, attests Williams. But what does he mean by his sheep comment? His explanation begins with pointing to the high percentage of traffic coming to the Virgin Experience Days website via mobile devices: 

We are seeing 75-80% [level]. When it gets to our peak period at Christmas, the levels are getting quite ridiculous - everyone’s coming from mobile. So it's really key that we're making sure our experiences are super-optimized for that platform.

Those mobile traffic rates rose during the COVID pandemic, he adds: 

In 2019, for the first time, there was a slowdown. As soon as the pandemic hit, everyone was on their devices. I think more people than ever started to pick up devices, use them for different things, new things. Different generations were starting to use this technology as well. So everyone's on mobile now and we just need to kind of accept that lean into it.

Williams cites an anecdote from the time when people had begun to return to the office after the pandemic. It was a Monday morning and everyone had their phones out to compare their screentime usage rates. Williams came in at two hours a day, someone else at six hours. Then one copywriter was found to come in at 13 hours a day! 

On closer examination a lot of that was made up of music, Netflix and social media - and the copywriter in question is now down to four hours a day - but looking at the breakdown confirmed the compelling nature of the likes of Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, TikTok et al, pulling us all in. Hence, we’re all flocks of sheep, is the conclusion.


This has implications. Williams continues: 

We've seen declines in physical activities because we've got these huge content platforms and more important, decreased attention spans [There's] lots of short form content, everyone's enjoying it, and they're absorbing nine hours of it at a go. 

So, is this problem or opportunity or both? Williams suggests that digital consumers are today looking for guidance, advice and curation: 

Unless you ask some of these big [content] brands, we're all being compared to those types of services -  and why not? They're great, they're easy, they're effortless, they're focused. They deliver what the customers are wanting. And now that is the benchmark for any business that you're compared to.

Through that short attention span or decrease in attention span, we're also finding it harder to convert people.  We've got less of their time, we've got less of their attention . And finally, people kind of default for that herd option. If everyone's using the same platform, and if it's good for one, it's good for many, how are we going to stand out? How are we going to actually sell our products, experiences, services to people? 

The solution? Flip it, says Williams:

Let's take that [sheep] comparison and use it as motivation and as a driving purpose to keep changing our experiences. Even if something works well, we're going to make it better. And we've started to do that by actually leveraging what resource we have into fewer digital experiences, making those really good, honing them up to something consumers are going to really enjoy and use. 

Just be the shepherd and actually start to make changes. Start to guide the flock. You know the flock is there. Now everyone's on their mobiles. Everyone's doing the same thing. We can learn to leverage that.  There's some really good returns.


He points to Virgin’s Gift Finder offering as a case in point:

We're taking that behavioral 'job to be done right now' information, which is super important. It's great if we can splice it against other information that we know about [consumers] and returning information, but what they're trying to do today is really important to them, so let's try and make the experience really tailored to that. 

That's what the Gift Finder does. It's a series of questions. Ask them, who they're looking to buy for today? What's their price range? What sort of person are they like, just describe them in a few different kinds of personalities. It's three or four questions, and by answering those, we're then able to leverage dynamic keywords in the product recommendation engine to actually serve up the most relevant products for their needs, right now, today. 

The other great part of that is where we can save that information for that amount of time and try and use that throughout the site, so that their current experience everywhere is relevant.

The Gift Finder has been a great success, he adds, pointing to the Christmas period as the firm’s busiest time of year: 

Everyone's buying Christmas gifts. This year, we had over 100,000 people go through our Gift Finder, with a near 100% completion rate, really quick questions, easy UX, and actually we've got an 8.5% conversion rate for the people that went through this. It was really good.

It’s something that other firms outside of the e-commerce space could emulate, suggests Williams: 

Just ask your questions about what your customers want, what do your products need, and actually do the similar kind of thing and hyper-personalize the output of what that is.

The future

For its part, over the past couple of years, Virgin Experience Days has been going through its own digital transformation, moving on to the MACH architecture. As to what’s coming down the tech tracks, Williams predicts ongoing change: 

The future is actually kind of here. With Google starting to layer in generative AI, the search space is going to change massively in the next six months. We're going to have people doing much more research, as well as having those product recommendations there. How are we going to make sure we're present and accurate?

Digital assistants will have an increased role to play, he argues: 

Beyond just asking the weather, the time and setting a timer for my cooking, we're now going to probably trust and delegate these digital assistants to do stuff in our day-to-day life. How are we, as businesses, going to make sure they understand what we're trying to get across to our customers? 

Further down the track, immersive reality tech has great potential: 

There's actually a quirk in our business where most of the people that consume an experience don't actually buy the experience. Eighty-plus percent of our consumers are gifters. If we could have immersive examples of experiences, you could have a whole new world of merchandizing where we could just showcase fun things going on. Or if you're really willing to go and want to see what an experience is, get a bit of a review of it, immersing yourself in that environment be great.

Getting buy-in for this sort of innovation is critical and one function that needs to be carried out is demystifying tech throughout the workplace. Williams says: 

If I can tell my execs that we could do this one thing and leverage and open three new channels -  or even one new channel - you're gonna start to get the buy-in and maybe the actual opportunities to properly explore this. That's when the hard bit comes, when you actually just have to take some action. You need an objective, you need a roadmap. That's exactly what happened with our Gift Finder. That was actually made by one person and they just saw what they could do, had a bit of an idea, a bit of a roadmap...We kept improving it, but we got it done. Now we're ready to move on and we've got the experience and successful win of that and the buy-in to now do more.

He concludes: 

Just be the shepherd -  show those trends and examples, keep up with stuff, start the conversations, and just champion the potential and it will take your businesses far.


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