A fellow MENG member, Stephen Denny, has written a new book, Killing Giants:  10 Strategies to Topple the Goliath in Your Industry.  The chapter titled “Winning in the Last Three Feet” plays to my particular devotion to brands that understand that the moment of contact with a consumer is the most precious in the entire marketing life cycle, or – put differently – that all the advertising and promotion in the universe cannot overcome the true experience at the point at which a consumer must make a decision.

A Wall Street Journal article recently had me thinking about the same thing.  “Tracking the Loyalty of Coffee Drinkers” was interesting because the research study on which the piece is based doesn’t study its navel by exploring why consumers “roam” between proprietors; it just captures how much wandering people do.

The author of the study, Dave Jenkins of CustomersDNA, says, “ Getting that customer to come one more time to their restaurant and one less time to their competitor’s is how the battle will be won or lost.”  One more for me, one less for you.  Over and over and over.  So simple.  But how often do senior marketers think like this, about the trees vs. the entire forest?

Denny tells a great story of one such marketer, Mandy Torvick at Adobe.  With Thanksgiving weekend fast approaching, Mandy was ready for Black Friday:  she had a big category exclusive ad buy ready to go with Adobe’s largest big box retailer in the U.S., and she was dreaming of turkey.  Then the retailer came back at the last minute and said the ad space would instead go to Microsoft.

Now, I’ve been a businessperson a long time and know plenty of talented people who would have absolutely freaked out.  Frrrrreeeeaked out!  Instead, Mandy viewed the event as an opportunity.  She could not control the altered landscape, but she could control what she and Adobe did about it.  Mandy took some of the advertising money and used it to send guerrilla teams into the retailer’s stores to stand in the aisles and enthusiastically demonstrate the product.  And there were plenty of shoppers in the aisles, of course, because Microsoft’s advertising and discounting got them there.

Adobe’s lovingly planned, detailed holiday ad plan went up in smoke, but Mandy wasn’t focused on the advertising:  she was focused on the sale.

What is the Web equivalent of this?  And I don’t mean that sites ought to be easier to use, or faster to navigate:  I mean really, really at the last minute.  I started thinking about this after I bought my first yoga mat last week.

With no loyalty to any particular seller, I did what I always do:  start with Google, learn about products and pricing, and then start hunting around for discount codes.  Gaiam.com had me at hello.  I was familiar with the brand, its website helped me understand all the choices, it sold the extra-thick mat I wanted and – cool! – the product even came with a free yoga DVD.  Free yoga video is all over the Web, but the DVD was a nice, thoughtful touch.  I had nearly completed the payment form when I decided to do just a little last minute checking.  YogaAccessories.com was selling the same mat, advertising a deal on shipping and – with the discount code I found – saved me enough money to make dropping Gaiam worth it.

The end.

Actually, that wasn’t the end:  a friend asked me to let him know if I liked the mat.  Once the mat had my approval, the easiest thing to do was to simply hand him the YogaAccessories.com invoice right out of the box so he could see the name of the website, the item number and all.

Score:  YogaAccessories  2.   Gaiam  0.

And not a peep from Gaiam.  No pop-up with a last-ditch discount offer, no “research study” request .  Nothing.  And I made sure to give them a shot, keeping the same browser window open and going directly to YogaAccessories.com from Gaiam.com.

That’s scary.  In a split second, Gaiam lost not only two sales but also two enthusiast buyers – with friends.

The sale that Gaiam lost is a drop in a very big bucket.  Retailers lose $18B a year to shopping card abandonment every year, and my personal experience reflects the top two reasons cited by millions of shoppers:  shipping charges and a desire to comparison shop.  Worse, more tech savvy shoppers are even more likely to drop a transaction when it’s nearly completed.

But this is about far more than the “25 ways to ensure shopping cart abandonment doesn’t happen to you” lists you can find all over the web (though this is a good list, FYI), or whether or not you re-market to a lost shopper.  This is about you being Microsoft, and Mandy being right there in front of your customer 24/7, offering another – and sometimes better – option.

So what’s a site to do?  I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts, but the #1 most important thing that an online retailer must do is follow the path of your shopper.  Every day.  Make sure you have a grasp of what’s happening in your competitive space on a day-to-day basis.  Who’s doing what?  Who’s running specials or offering free shipping?  Some of this can be designed into algorithms, but nothing beats a human review comparing your presentation to your shopper’s other choices.

Second, a retailer must test mercilessly.  Who are your customers and what are the habits?  How price elastic are they?  Where are your core segments, and (a) what are you doing for them right now on your site, and (b) what are you doing for them all year ‘round  to help built loyalty and perhaps a little price insulation?  You’ve got to understand what you are willing and are not willing to do and for whom.  Not all shoppers are created equal.  For example – while you have your target populations – some may not be “worth” the effort.  How many Stephanies are out there, for example, willing to spend 10-15 minutes gaming discount codes, with no history of purchasing yoga related products?  Can I ever be saved?  Probably not.  Should I be on the top of your target list, relatively speaking?  Probably not.

But all this is unknown without a solid, day-to-day grasp on (and primary research about) your target segments and their behavior.

There are some interesting new tools out there than can help.  Dynamic serving of both content and offers from companies like Monetate is exciting new work…but you still need to know what to serve to whom.  And what offers your competition is promoting.  And when to stand in the aisles to grab one more transaction.  To win…in the last three clicks.