New independent research examining the whole online shopping experience - from first visit to returning unwanted items at the UK’s leading non-food online retailers - has found that even the best online retailers could deliver a very much better shopping experience.
The research, carried out by independent mystery shopping and market research experts Marketing Assistance Ltd., for Blast Radius, a company specialising in developing innovative customer experiences, analysed the top 28 UK online retailers (selected by traffic volume) grading their performance in the run up to the expected boom in web shopping predicted for Christmas 2006.
The researchers purchased a single item from each of the sites, and then sought to return the product once it had been received. They graded their experience against a set of 36 subjective and objective criteria at every step of the process.
According to Lee Feldman, Blast Radius’ Chief Creative Officer. “The study results show that investment by online retailers tends to focus on what they care about most, securing the sale. This attention is at odds with what the customers focus on, what happens after they have made a purchase. This `service disconnect`is critical and reveals a short sighted view of the customer based on immediate revenue collection where real value is gained from long-term relationships.”
Scheduling deliveries so that customers are available to receive goods is an ongoing challenge for the industry, however failing to deliver at all, as two of the companies surveyed did, is a sure way to turn customers against your brand.
B&Q had several chances; the first item ordered from their site was out-of-stock, the second and third purchase attempts failed to deliver, despite advance phone calls booking a delivery day. The researcher waited 9 days for the last purchase before cancelling the order.
It was a similar story with HMV. The research shoppers cancelled their first order when the goods had not been received after 14 days; they cancelled a second subsequent order after waiting seven days.
Over this issue even amongst those placed high in the top ten, concerns abound. Amazon’s returns arrangements were judged to fall short of best practice. Tesco, whose delivery performance was commended, did not include any returns information with the product, nor in any of the four emails it sent relating to the purchase. Apple, another of the top performers, failed to mention a returns policy in the documentation supplied but customers taking the time to search its website could establish that a “transportation charge” of £30 would apply to return the goods – the postage charged to send the goods was £4.50.
Many of the sites shared the common issue of requiring the customer to phone a customer services number to get a returns authorisation. Outside of the top ten, however, Packard Bell performed particularly badly by allowing its call centre to make the customer wait for ten minutes without a reply.
Another area of the survey that highlighted marked inconsistencies was the branding experience. Despite high levels of investment in the web site itself, this was in marked contrast to major high street retailers where end-to-end branding is the norm.
The best used the delivery and ongoing customer contact process as an opportunity to brand a successful purchase and to encouraged further transactions. Amazon, Dell and Apple’s packing was clearly branded whist ASOS included a full colour catalogue with the delivery; Maplin and QVC provided additional information in the box and followed-up orders with subsequent mailers. These e-tailers also routinely used strongly branded, if third party, logistics operations.
White van, brown box
In sharp contrast there were those where brand presence was negligible through a `white van, brown box` approach.
Prime examples were Lastminute.com and Comet where goods arrived in by white van and in anonymous packaging. “There is sometimes a case for plain wrapping where there is a need to enhance security and privacy but failing to reinforce a successful transaction and to ask for more custom is a missed opportunity both to build brand value and revenues,” says Feldman.
Other issues raised during the research were a lack of price transparency, weak decision support - such as not providing product cross comparison, poor site search & categorisation, and a failure to integrate sites with the retailer’s off-line outlets.
Bad news, good news
“For consumers the bad news is that the online shopping experience even with those judged to be the best fails to satisfy in many ways. The good news for even the top online retailers is that there are still many opportunities to differentiate their customer’s experience of doing business with them,” he emphasises.
“The areas of opportunity are quite clear. For instance, if retailers focus on developing an innovative approach to returns a superior experience will become a major reason for the customer to come back and shop again. Securing customers in this way is an effective barrier against price cutting rivals and the ease with which customers can switch suppliers, should they be motivated to do so.”
Wisdom of crowds will prevail
“We are entering an age where the where customers have huge choice and the ability to rapidly compare not only the cost of goods through price comparison sites but increasingly their experiences through online communities and social media sites. This means that “the wisdom of crowds”, will prevail and your advantages as well as your shortcomings are quickly exposed. Anywhere in the buying/delivery/return process that you serve your customer better than your competition can set you apart and provides you with the ultimate marketing tool – satisfied customers,” underlines Feldman.
“Our survey has shown that even the biggest names online face challenges in ensuring that they deliver a consistent brand image, build trust and provide consumers with every opportunity to recommend their service and purchase again. Online retail has grown up but still has even more to offer customers if the very best marketing practices are followed.”
UK plc has to try harder
Blast Radius (blastradius.com) believes that it is therefore essential that retailers look at every aspect of their service from first impression, through product comparison, purchase, fulfilment and after sales service if they are to gain new business and win customer loyalty and those all important recommendations.
“What is worrying too is that the top three brands in the survey are US-owned, with the UK’s flagship retailer, Tesco, coming in only sixth and with B&Q and HMV’s performance being particularly lamentable. Clearly UK plc has to try harder,” concludes Feldman.
Notes to editors
UK’s Best Online Shopping Experiences – 2006
The top ten:
1. Amazon UK
2. Dell EMEA
3. Apple Computer UK
6. Tesco/ QVC UK
7. Currys/ Littlewoods
9. John Lewis
10. Hewlett-Packard/Marks and Spencer.
Media contacts: Jonathan Simnett / E: jonathan[.]chameleonpr.com.