What Most E-Commerce Sites Get Wrong About Cross-Selling





Blog Date

May 27, 2024


UK, Manchester

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What Most E-Commerce Sites Get Wrong About Cross-Selling

What Most E-Commerce Sites Get Wrong About Cross-Selling

Have you ever added an item to your online shopping cart only to be bombarded with a flurry of irrelevant product recommendations? It’s like the website is trying to sell me a toilet when all I wanted was a new bath faucet! Or perhaps you’ve encountered a cluttered product page that makes it nearly impossible to find the key details about the item you’re considering. Sadly, these types of subpar cross-selling experiences are all too common in the e-commerce world.

As someone who spends way too much time (and money) shopping online, I’ve seen my fair share of cross-selling done right and, more often than not, done wrong. That’s why I’m on a mission to share what I’ve learned – both from my own experiences and from diving deep into the research – about how e-commerce sites can optimize their cross-selling strategies to drive sales without frustrating customers.

Let’s start by taking a look at why so many e-commerce sites struggle to get cross-selling right. A big part of the problem, as Baymard Institute’s research has found, is that they rely too heavily on generic “Customers Also Bought” recommendations without considering the actual relevance to the items already in the customer’s cart. As one frustrated shopper at Home Depot put it, “These kind of things NEVER get me to buy anything extra. And not at all on sites like this, where I’m buying something practical, where something in my home has broken. It’s not like I’m thinking, ‘Wait, let me also get a new toilet’.”

The issue is compounded when sites try to further boost sales by cramming in all sorts of other promotional offers and recommendations, creating a cluttered mess that overwhelms and alienates customers. A user at Overstock summed it up well: “I think this site is super annoying; there’s way too much info. Because I buy a speaker, I might also be interested in buying a USB stick? It’s difficult to see the connection.”

So what’s the solution? According to the Baymard research, the key is ensuring that any cross-sells or recommendations presented to customers are highly relevant and personalized to their specific needs and interests at that moment. This means moving beyond generic behavioral data and instead leveraging a combination of user-specific info (purchase history, browsing patterns, profile data, etc.) and broader category relationships.

But it’s not just about the recommendations themselves – the placement and presentation of cross-sells is also crucial. For example, the McKinsey research found that consumers now expect personalization to be the default, with 71% expecting companies to deliver personalized interactions. Bombarding them with irrelevant offers and recommendations is a surefire way to damage their trust and frustrate them to the point of abandonment.

The good news is that there are a number of best practices e-commerce sites can implement to nail their cross-selling strategies, as outlined in Baymard’s research. These include:

  1. Providing a “dynamic” number of recommendations rather than a fixed amount. This helps ensure that only the most relevant items are displayed, rather than diluting the signal-to-noise ratio with lower-relevance suggestions.

  2. Prioritizing compatible/complementary products over alternative products. When customers are ready to check out, they’re less interested in exploring alternatives and more focused on getting the items they need to complete their purchase.

  3. Clearly labeling the recommendations. Using descriptive labels like “Frequently Bought Together” or “Inspired by Your Browsing” can help customers understand the logic behind the suggestions, making them less likely to dismiss them outright.

  4. Leveraging “use case” themes. Grouping recommendations by relevant themes or contexts (e.g., “Winter Essentials,” “Outdoor Entertaining”) can ensure a higher degree of relevance.

  5. Emphasizing compatible accessories. Suggesting items that are directly compatible with the product in the cart, like cables, cases, or installation hardware, can be an effective way to increase order value.

And perhaps most importantly, e-commerce sites need to resist the temptation to clutter up the checkout process with irrelevant promotional offers and discounts. As the Baymard research found, these kinds of distractions are rarely welcomed by customers and can severely undermine their trust in the site’s recommendations.

Of course, perfecting the art of cross-selling is an ongoing challenge, and even industry leaders like REI have room for improvement. But by focusing on relevance, personalization, and a seamless customer experience, e-commerce sites can transform cross-selling from a nuisance into a powerful tool for driving sales and delighting customers.

And who knows, maybe one day I’ll even be tempted to buy that new toilet after all – as long as the website can convince me it’s exactly what I need.

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