December 7th, 2009 by Christopher Musico

The “official” start to the holiday shopping season on Black Friday has not left us without myriad statistics regarding shopping preferences. According to a recent holiday survey of more than 2,300 consumers by Prospectiv, an online performance marketing firm specializing in connecting women to brands, found:

  • 25 percent will use coupons more often this holiday season;
  • 16 percent will shop online to find the best deals; and
  • 35 percent will utilize email to share great deals they either receive or find with friends.

Convergys, a relationship management provider, also unveiled findings from a recent survey:

  • 86.1 percent of respondents will plan to shop online;
  • 37.3 percent will do all or most of their shopping via the Web;
  • nearly nine out of 10 consumers say the most desirable attribute is the ability to shop whenever they like; and
  • 61 percent of shoppers prefer the online channel because they can “get customer service on their own terms.”

No matter which numbers you scrutinize, one thing is clear: online retailing is rapidly taking the hearts — and wallets — of consumers. I had the chance to speak with Doug Farmer, Convergys’ senior director of customer management, about his company’s survey results, one statistic that shocked him, and what he has seen in his work with Convergys’ customers in the retail industry.

CRM magazine: How has the job companies must do on the Web changed since online retailing began?
Doug Farmer: Ten years ago, when online retailing getting its legs underneath it, a lot of effort was first ensuring the right product was online and available. Second, we had to make sure the customer interface was easy to use, one that people would warm up to quickly. Third, there had to be no snafus in fulfillment. Now that we’ve progressed, those are just table stakes items.

CRM: What are the new challenges that must be addressed?

Farmer: Consumers are looking for a pleasant customer experience on the Web. Not only one that is convenient — as they can do it in their pajamas from home — but also one reinforcing the [particular] brand as hassle-free and informative. We’ve found that 32 percent of customers believe past experiences with a company influences their decision on where to shop, compared to 22 percent that said discounts/coupons were the deciding factor. It’s not just the price; that’s a given. The online experience needs to replicate for the customer the positive experience she would have had in a store.

CRM: How can this be accomplished?
Farmer: The key for the consumer is to be able to reach out and have an interaction beyond the Web, enabling her to make an informed purchase decision. As an example, one of our clients, a leading women’s fashion retailer, staffs the customer contact center in support of its Web site.

If a customer calls in looking for a particular blouse, or has a fashion question about what materials could go well together, we have trained fashion consultants who can have an intelligent dialogue with her. We can help advise her on what the combination should be, or even find an item she wasn’t able to find in the store. That’s an example of backing up the Web site with real expertise helping people make an informed purchasing decision.

That can also take the form — rather than a voice interaction — of a chat interaction. The customer on a Web site might have the same type of question, but rather than pick up phone, she selects the chat option and connects with a live agent in one of our centers.

Another piece of it is the entire world post-purchase: shipping status or an issue with an invoice or bill. We can also provide status updates to customers via a variety of different methods, including outbound auto voice messaging, emails, and text messages directly to their personal digital assistant to keep them informed on the status of their purchase.

It’s about enacting a full scope of support activities to put a personal touch in what might otherwise be a fairly cold, technologically-driven transaction.

CRM: Of all the findings, which one surprised you the most?
Farmer: One piece that stands out to me is the percentage of respondents likely to use their smartphone or other mobile device to complete their transactions. We found 21 percent indicated they’ll be using those technologies to make holiday purchases. While we don’t have a benchmark [for comparison], it’s significantly higher than I would have supposed.

CRM: What does that tell you?
Farmer: That makes me start to wonder if my clients’ Web sites are conducive to purchases made over a smartphone in such a way that makes the shopping experience easy and pleasant.

CRM: What is the reaction to the study from Convergys’ retail clientele?
Farmer: They have indicated their experience dovetails with our survey results. They tend to be larger, more established retail clients. So, they have seen this wave approaching and made the changes necessary both with tools and processes to maintain that high level of customer service.

CRM: What do you think we’ll be talking about a year from now?
Farmer: First, the wave of online shopping will continue to rise. It is going to increasingly become the preferred method of shopping. Not just for the holidays, though. This is a sea change, really, for most retailers who over the years invested lots of money and bricks-and-mortar locations.  Online won’t ever replace them — people want the opportunity to touch and feel items — but I don’t see us ever reversing the trend toward online buying.

Second, I think we’re going to see — as smartphone technology improves — that usage will also continue to rise. It will enable true shopping, making comparative shopping easier.

Preferred retailers are going to have to provide an online experience backed up by real, live people in order for them to flourish and grow. Their customers will continue to demand that they must stay ahead of its consumer base in terms of preferred communication technologies and channels. Another emerging trend for all businesses, and especially retailers, is social media. What in the world does that mean to a big, nationally known retailer? How does it manage its corporate image in a world where every single person who has an experience — good or bad — is able to blog it and send it to the world?

We are currently working on a pilot for one of our major consumer goods companies to look at how we can surf the blogosphere and help the organization protect its brand image, and also enhance it through social media. It’s in its infancy, but a lot of companies are busy right now having meetings trying to figure this out.

One point that fails to be touched on here is the percentage of retail customer who do not shop online and why. John lewis recently revealed that 60% of their store customers do not shop with them online and they are keen to know why.

Comment by g garth — — January 20, 2010 @ 3:42 am

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