By Sha Fakiri
Senior vice president, MyPoints
Amazon dominates the world of online retail, and as much as other retailers would love to hate them, their response is more often "begrudging admiration." Most retailers can certainly appreciate Amazon's ability to put the customer first with features such as the Prime loyalty program and seamless one-click ordering. However, going up against Amazon's Goliath can be challenging for the more David-sized specialty retailers.
But as successful as Amazon is, it cannot be all things to all shoppers (as hard as it may try.) There is still room for innovative retailers to take a stand, but they must compete for mindshare in a noisy marketplace. In order to contend with Amazon's prices, shipping and service, these retailers have to not only offer unique products, but also reach out to their customers in unique ways.
Today's customers want convenience and security, but they also want to be engaged on their own terms, and to contribute to their own experiences. The way retailers can stand apart from the Amazons of the world is to seamlessly integrate their brands into their customers' lives, offering compelling, useful and entertaining content that is easily accessible.
Retailers Poppin.com and TheCools.com are nothing if not innovative. These two retailers are reinventing the online shopping experience for consumers by leveraging out-of-the-box techniques like curation and plain old creative thinking, with a constant eye to customer trends and feedback.
TheCools.com is a style-centric site with an innovative approach to the customer experience. The Cools' highly visual platform combines social, e-commerce and content focused on trends and tastemakers, giving users access to insights from their favorite style mavens and the ability to customize their own content feeds with the influencers they follow. Shoppers begin their experience on the site by completing a photo-based survey. Shown images of merchandise — for example, a unique artisan-crafted necklace or a pair of high leather boots — visitors are asked to decide whether the pieces are "cool." Items are then shown to the shopper based on their selections.
By allowing users to curate their own content, and then actually buy the items contained in that content, The Cools provides an experience that is both personalized and practical. The Cools also places great emphasis on social sharing as both a platform for customers and designers to communicate as well as a source of insight into their customers' wants and needs.
Poppin.com is actually both an online and offline retailer, as their colorful office products are featured in stores such as Staples and Canada's Indigo. Poppin's fun products are displayed across a clean, tidy and cheeky site that allows consumers to shop not only by category, but also by color. Shoppers can easily purchase an orange desk chair and laptop case to match the new stapler and notebook in their shopping cart.
In addition to offering a unique product suite, Poppin focuses on offering a high-touch shopping experience, such as sending a handwritten thank-you card with every purchase and offering several ways for customers to provide feedback. Because the brand is so personalized, it has been extremely important for Poppin to maintain their unique brand even as they grow distribution through their retail partners. The company makes it a priority to maintain control over its marketing and merchandising with those partners, ensuring that marketing and promotional messages are being served in a non-intrusive and useful manner. Poppin also makes it a practice to constantly test a variety of customer-engaging rewards and loyalty offers to ensure they are staying in touch with what consumers want.
Mobile has presented a challenge to both brands, as certain elements of the shopping experience don't automatically translate to mobile screens. Both also recognize the enormous potential that mobile holds for growing their business and are actively seeking new ways to tap into mobile while preserving their site experiences.
The common thread in both of these brands' stories is being laser-focused on putting the customer first. Each retailer places great importance on constantly testing offers and communications, which is a tactic that Amazon uses to great success but which many smaller retailers feel can be too financially risky for them to undertake. Both The Cools and Poppin are great examples of how taking those risks in order to provide a better experience for your customers usually pays off in the end — in increased loyalty, new customers and more revenue. Retailers of the future: Don't try to be Amazon; just be the best you can be.