By Eric Feinberg
Senior director of product strategy for ForeSee
Merchandise? Check. Customers? Check. Customer-centric strategies? Now that's an item that's a little bit trickier to address.
Although they may be harder to tick off in a simple box, customer-centric strategies are extremely important to get right, especially at a time when consumers have unprecedented power. In fact, today's consumers are super consumers — not just any ordinary breed. Their superpowers include the ability to clone themselves (shopping via multiple channels), speak abnormally loudly (for example, via social media megaphones), have an incredible range of hearing, and tap into genius-like intelligence, with easy access to the Internet and competitive product data.
In this landscape, the customer experience is not just a differentiator, it's often the differentiator. In fact, a recent ForeSee study of 2013 holiday shoppers found that highly satisfied customers are 72 percent more likely to purchase additional products from the same brand, instead of going elsewhere.
So what are leading-edge retailers doing to improve the customer experience? Here's a checklist of important trends and differentiators to stay abreast of:
Measure, measure, measure
You can't manage what you don't measure — and if you don't measure the customer experience, you won't reliably know what to improve and what impact the change(s) will have.
Just as today's consumer is a multichannel shopper, it's important to measure satisfaction in a multichannel way. Ask yourself: How are my individual channels performing? How do they interact with each other? Do they facilitate a fluid experience, or is one channel strategy undermining another? How does one channel contribute to the experience of another, and what's the cumulative effect? Measurement lets you connect the dots. By using a predictive technology, you can accurately identify and prioritize changes based on the effect they'll have on both future satisfaction and financial performance.
Avoid common measurement mistakes
Get rid of the "one and done" mentality. Measurement is a continuous process, and shouldn't be just a reactive one. You need to measure satisfaction continuously to stay abreast and even get ahead of evolving desires, continuously delight shoppers, engender loyalty, nip problems in the bud and benchmark yourself against competitors.
Also, beware of basing decisions solely on "opt-in" feedback, which typically elicits responses from only the highly dissatisfied and highly satisfied — leaving the vast and silent majority unrepresented. Take steps to ensure the information you're using tells the whole story, illuminating seemingly causal relationships. It's also important to make sure the methodology you're basing decisions on is credible, accurate, dependable, actionable and predictive — enabling you to see how strategic choices will positively impact your business.
Online, content is king
All too often, online retail product pages are generic — with only a photo, a one-line descriptor and the price to entice someone to add an item to their cart. Consumers, however, want more. Merchants including Home Depot, Dick's Sporting Goods and Newegg have discovered that adding features like image galleries, videos and demos can increase sales up to 50 percent. High-engagement features such as product Q&A facilitate a one-to-one conversation between a brand and a customer, and product reviews can significantly boost retailer page visibility on search engines. In addition, interactive tools like product selectors can boost conversions as much as 400 percent.
Strive for an omnichannel experience
It's time to break down silos and give consumers what they want: a fluid, unfettered experience across channels. Shoppers view their experiences with a company as just that — an experience with a company, not with discrete channels. This omnichannel vision — an experience that focuses on search, rich information and ease of checkout — isn't a reality yet for many brands, but it's getting there. As they build it, retailers are looking toward, for example, authentication technologies to identify consumers at each touch-point, and then help customers pick up where they left off when migrating to another channel.
Hone mobile functionality
Global smartphone shipments topped 1 billion units in 2013 (some studies show there are more mobile phones than toothbrushes!), and annual tablet shipments are expected to outpace PCs by 2015. This skyrocketing mobile usage underscores the importance and popularity of the mobile channel — and the fact that a cohesive mobile strategy is something retailers can't afford to ignore. Consumers' high-frequency mobile use, coupled with their high expectations for a seamless experience, means it's no longer enough to simply have a mobile site or app. You have to have a good one.
Think of it this way: if customers are going to be browsing on their mobile devices in your store, you want them incentivized to do so on your site/app, rather than on competitors'. Successful apps are often interactive, and blend brick-and-mortar and mobile functionality — allowing mobile users, for example, to scan in-store barcodes to access product reviews and demos. Lowe's iPhone app shows the value of personalization — enabling users to access their purchase history, create store-specific shopping lists and view how-to videos. Other innovative apps use geolocation to serve up different experiences and interfaces for users in the store, near the store and everywhere else. Once again, measurement can help bridge the gap between current functionality and customer desires.
Adopt a glass-half-full mentality. Just as showrooming can present opportunities to better connect with customers, webrooming is also a trend that retailers can and must embrace. By welcoming and even facilitating webrooming — where consumers do research online and then make a purchase in stores — there's an opportunity to create a consistent, cohesive omnichannel experience that drives repeat visits.
For example, seek opportunities to expand consumer access to online information, so they know what's available to them in a store. Leading brands are also looking at shopping list functionality, where consumers can create a wish list online at home, and print it out in stores.
Protect your rep
As wise man Warren Buffett once quipped, "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it." With 85 percent of consumers surfing the Web to research products and services, and as many as four out of five prospective customers reversing purchase decisions based on negative reviews, it's more crucial than ever for merchants to take firmer control of their online reputation. This can be especially significant for up-and-comers looking to establish their credibility in the marketplace, where zero reviews engender zero trust. At the same time, reputation management is vital for even the most established companies: highly reviewed retailers tend to attract better click-through rates via search engines. The right tools can help you continuously generate reviews, reverse negative ones, drive customer traffic to your site and improve your reputation.
(Photo by AJ Cann.)