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How Alternative Products Help Stop Lost Sales

12 Sep 2018

Unfortunately sometimes ecommerce store owners forget that their customers don't always start their online shopping experience on the homepage and follow a logical pre-determined path. Often there are times where a customer has clicked through to an ecommerce store after spotting for instance, a Facebook ad of a product that looks like something they might want, but isn't quite right. Or they might have an idea in mind of what they need, but they haven't worked out the exact product they've after so they've used the search feature to look at options. Perhaps a friend has linked them to a particular product, but they're after something with a few more features, or in a different colour or size.

There's a really good chance that if you were able show this potential customer the right product for their needs, that it would result in a successful sale for your business. Hence why more ecommerce stores are starting to offer an 'alternative products' (for instance, related products, other items you may like, recommended for you, etc sections) area on each product detail page. The idea behind this being that if the customer has chosen to open that particular product, then if this isn't the exact right one for them, then there are fairly good odds that a similar item will be the one that they are after.

But unless you are hand-picking each related option there are sometimes problems with what this approach actually displays to your customer; just two recent examples:

  • Looking at purchasing a bath bomb, but didn't like the scent. Alternative products suggested were all of a candy or practical joke nature.
  • Looking at a fishing rod, but the length was a bit short. Alternative products suggested were dog crates, dog beds and dog toys!

The problem here is being caused by a breakdown in the data and a little bit of short-sighted thinking...

The problem with a category driven approach

Alternative product suggestions tend to work better on larger ecommerce stores because they have the depth within their product range to ensure that a customer is more likely to be shown a product that's close to what they were looking for. But that's just because the usual approach for choosing alternative products is to simply show products from the same category as the item the customer was looking for. In a larger ecommerce store these categories are more likely to be more highly refined meaning that looking at a toaster for instance would be more likely to show up other toaster. But for smaller ecommerce store owners they may not have the product range to be able to drill down so specifically, so instead of having category navigation like homeware -> kitchen appliances -> toasters, they might opt to instead have homeware -> kitchen appliances.

Having broader categories like this makes sense if the smaller operator stocked a 'page or two' worth of kitchen appliances; a few toasters, some coffee machines, some kettles etc. Or in other words it would look stupid on-screen if they were put into their own category as there would only be a couple of them, but when bulked with other more-or-less related items visually they make sense. This approach works well when your customer is looking at your products via your categories as they can see all the options on screen and are more likely to pick the one which appeals to them, but if they've landed on a product details page using a different approach (for instance opening a link a friend sent), then the alternative products they'll be seeing will potentially contain absolutely no other toasters, despite this being what they have opened.


Because the most usual approach for alternative products is to simply display products that are in the same category that the customer is looking in. So in the case above, they would be looking at a toaster, but the alternative product suggestions could be any kitchen appliance which may or may not include a different offering of the product they were looking for.

How can smaller ecommerce stores get alternative products right?

The most obvious solution that people think of is simply having more categories, so that toasters are sitting in a category which only contains toasters. Problem solved, yes...but...all you've done is add complexity, made your customer jump through more hoops to find what they need and displaying more levels of category navigation just to display 1-3 items on-screen isn't a great visual look.

A far easier solution lies in the use of category tags. Essentially every product in your ecommerce store has a tag created when you load them which states what it is; 'toaster' 'duvet' 'small dog bed' etc, you can be as specific as you like but you'd want at least 3-4 items in each tag group as a minimum. Then you simply set your alternative products area to show a set number of products which share the same tag as the one that your customer is viewing.

Simple! And no more confusion as to why you're being shown dog beds when you're looking at fishing rods!

Remember to get the wording right!

There doesn't currently seem to be any real consistency across ecommerce stores with the wording that they use when it comes to displaying alternative products. A popular choice seems to be 'other items you may like', but that wording seems to be used any where from alternative product suggestions, to products other customers have brought, to products the customer looked at last time, through to a completely random selection of products from within the ecommerce store itself! To cut down on any potential confusion for your customer we would recommend being quite clear with the wording for this section and going with either 'similar products' or 'other options to consider'.

Make sure to check back here next month when we'll be showing you how to match alternative products with supplementary products, so you can maximise the amount of profit your ecommerce store makes from each sale.