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25 August 2015

Retailers, keep up with your digital customers or lose forever

A couple of months ago I moved to Brussels to live closer to my new job. After having found a nice apartment in a fairly quiet street I soon came to the conclusion that having a fridge was rather essential. As a young Gen Y member raised with all the benefits of the Internet I was sure this was but a minor issue and that soon my brand-new fridge would be delivered to my kitchen.


I started browsing the web shops of different retailers but soon discovered that fridges have a surprisingly large amount of specifications that all seem to be of vital importance. I wanted to make a well-motivated purchase decision and started comparing the different models, but that proved to be harder than expected. Crucial information, such as the size of the fridge, was often missing or was measured in different ways per model. After having spent a full evening online I was still no step closer to deciding which of the 26 models that met my criteria would become my new piece of furniture, so my girlfriend and I decided to go to the nearest store of the retailer with the least irritating web shop.

Once we got there a sales assistant came to us and asked some simple questions.

1. What do you need? A fridge with a built-in freezer.

2. Do you want the freezer to have a separate door? Yes please.

3. Built-in or stand-alone? Stand-alone, we live in a rented apartment.

4. Would this size (points at a fridge of about 160cm x 60cm x 60cm) be OK? Yes.

5. What is your budget? Maximum €400.

The shop employee immediately showed us 5 fridges that had everything we needed and came in white and silver. The next Monday our fridge was delivered at home.

Five short questions were enough to narrow our choice down to five options that were relevant for us, which was completely missing in our online customer journey. This is an issue that many online retailers are still struggling with, despite their efforts to go digital. Online shops are too often still nothing more than a digitized version of the full catalogue, which makes it very difficult for the customers to find the products they want in the huge number of items. A second issue is that many online shops are unable to inform customers in a way that is actually understandable for them, and therefore fail to inspire them. In the physical store the sales assistant translated the complex specifications to practical information we could understand, and was able to point out certain aspects that we hadn’t thought of yet. The art of a good web shop is to provide the same service to customers online.

The art of a good web shop

First of all, focus relentlessly on the customer experience. Customers have become used to fluent digital journeys from companies like Amazon and Zalando, and expect the same level of excellence from any other retailer. Therefore, companies need to constantly analyze and improve their digital journeys, with ‘customer convenience’ as essential mindset. Every step of all possible tracks need to be scrutinized. If clicks can be avoided or irrelevant parts of your offer can be omitted, that’s the way to go.

Secondly, gather data and integrate it maximally throughout the organization. In order to connect with your customer you have to know your customer, and in order to know your customer you need to learn about them from data. Successful retailers such as Colruyt and Ikea have already proven that it is possible to increase customer satisfaction by offering more relevant products and promotions, even if customers have to give up their personal data for it. Now it is up to other retailers to come up with an offer that is advantageous both for them as for their customers. In case of my fridge, this would mean that the data that I entered to order my fridge are used again to bring up relevant suggestions when I would search for a microwave. The fridge that I ordered was a standalone fridge, so probably I’ll be looking for a standalone model of microwave as well.

Finally, retailers need to use their online stores to inspire their customers like they do in physical stores. Customers expect to receive personal product suggestions that are based on their preferences and to be able to read reviews of the different products. If retailers want to inspire people, they need to go much further in this.

A first step would be to advise customers on how they can be creative with the products that are offered in the store, and allow customers to interact with each other for inspiration. Many fashion chains like Nordstrom and H&M have understood this and have extensive Instagram accounts with appealing visuals of their products. Veritas uploads videos with style advice and goes on to the next step by organizing events on for instance hobby knitting where customers can learn from instructors and from each other.

A second possibility to inspire customers is to make use of new technology. For instance furniture retailers could use hi-tech gadgets such as Augmented Reality apps to bring their products much closer to their customer. These apps allow customer to virtually move furniture from a catalogue around in their kitchen or living room, creating a much better image for the customer

The perfect experience

To get back to my fridge purchase, the perfect experience that I had in mind was the following: once I’ve landed on the retailer’s website I can immediately choose which item category I am looking for. After indicating that I want a fridge, the website offers me the choice to choose a fridge by using their product wizard, to see the full catalogue or to immediately go to the fridges that I looked at during my previous visits. As I want a new selection I choose for the product wizard, which asks me some basic questions just like the sales assistant in the physical store, and explains for each question the reasoning behind it when I ask for it. Once I’ve filled out the wizard I land on a page with five relevant models that each can be compared by a fixed set of metrics that are explained in a way that is relevant for me. The energy consumption, for instance is not only displayed in kWh, but also in the amount of money this would cost me per year, based on the average energy price in Belgium. If I’m in doubt whether or not the fridge matches the rest of my furniture, I can simply upload a picture from my kitchen and virtually move the fridge around to different places in the picture. For each model I can read reviews from specialists and previous buyers, as well as find out where the nearest store with this model in stock is located. As my car is rather small, I opt for home delivery and select a time and date that suits me best. Finally the website asks me if I would be interested in a stand-alone microwave or oven (I’ve just moved in, remember) and notifies me that design magnets to keep notes and pictures on my fridge door are offered at half price because of my fridge purchase.

Despite the good examples of some, most retailers still have a long way ahead to develop a fully customer-centric online channel that is integrated with their brick-and-mortar stores. Nonetheless this evolution will be necessary if they want to keep up with their customer, who demands relevance and a fluent experience. In order to provide this, retailers will need to analyze and continually improve their customer experience based on gathered data, integrate these data and insights throughout the entire organization to finally inspire their customers instead of simply selling to them.


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