David Bell, Professor of Marketing at Wharton, gave an excellent seminar (download David Bell's presentation) last evening on the most important factors in internet retailing. He summarized four of his recent papers in this space and most of his research stems from Wharton's startups specifically diapers.com and Netgrocer.com. His online customer acquisition lessons are summarized below.
1. Social Contagion states that communication and observation affects online demand evolution. Traditional brick and mortar retailers are limited by their small trading areas. It is more likely for you to visit your nearest grocery store whereas the internet is unlimited but this also means that you don't know where your customer is located. One of the main findings of social contagion (as seen in image on left) is that your new customers will be located near your existing customers. Communication and observation are key in social contagion. This is where word of mouth and visual differentiation are key. For example, Warby Parker, a Wharton startup, makes prescription glasses for $95 compared to the average competitor price of $500. They have visually differentiated themselves from the competition by making their frames a distinct color (blue, orange, turquoise and more) and a classic vintage-inspired shape (thicker frames). As for word of mouth they donate a pair of glasses to someone in need every time you buy a pair.
2. Spatial Structure follows a pattern of proximity and similarity. This finding states that social and demographic proximity and similarity can drive online sales. For example, an interpersonal property or similarity such as ethnicity could drive sales of an online product that started in Chicago and then moved to LA and then Springfield through word of mouth. Internet retailers first grow through physical proximity and later through similarity among distant locations. Thus internet retailers should target sparse locations with geographically diverse demand. For example, target zip codes that are not close to each other and not socially or demographically similar but have a good number of target customers.
3. Preference Isolation brings shoppers online and explains geographic breakdown of online brand demand. The image on the right explains this concept. Consider 2 markets for diapers- Market 1 with 200 people of which 100 have babies (50% penetration) and Market 2 with 2000 people of which 100 have babies (5% penetration). Market 2 is the preference (in this case diapers) minority and the market that an online retailer should target. The primary reason for internet retailers to target Market 2 is that the brick and mortar stores in Market 1 will stock 50% of their shelf space with various diaper brands (pampers, huggies and even niche brands such as 7th generation) so it is easy for people in this market to access these diapers but Market 2 is going to allocate only 5% of their shelf space thus carrying the top selling brand only (say Pampers) so customers are more likely to look online for the other brands especially niche brands thus driving online sales.
4. Acquisition Modes vary in efficacy according to location characteristics. Different acquisition methods (magazines, online WOM, offline WOM, online search) get you different customers and are complementary as seen from the image on the right. Word-of-mouth (WOM) acquisitions benefit from physical proximity among targets (offline WOM—contagion; online WOM—connectivity). Use magazines for sparsely populated markets and WOM for densely populated markets.
Many other factors such as taxes, shipping cost and type of product matter in customer acquisition in internet retailing but have not been studied in this research.