We’re all talking about online retailers these days. I’m as guilty of it as anyone. I’m half-waiting for the point at which “to Amazon” becomes a verb, like “to Google”, and then we’ll know that the Seattle giant has truly wormed its way into our collective consciousness. And it makes sense. They’ve transformed the way we shop massively, to an extent we probably still don’t realise. With clever little gimmicks like “Amazon recommends…” and one-click ordering, as well as their speed of delivery and their range of products, the online brigade have made it infinitely easier to make purchases, and – let’s not underestimate the importance of this – they’ve taken a lot of the thought out of the whole experience, so impulse-buying is incredibly simple and straightforward. See something advertised on television during your favourite soap? You can have it ordered and on its way to you before the ad break has even finished.
Once the imagination and the technology for efficient online retail selling came together, it was inevitable that someone would get it right and win big, and Amazon have certainly done that. There are others, of course, like boohoo and ASOS and any number of competitors. Shopping is now at least a twin-track process for consumers, and they use both for different purposes. I’ve argued before, and I’ll argue again in weeks and years to come, that the physical bricks-and-mortar stores of the high street still have a vibrant future if they can adapt and thrive. But no-one would write off the online sector. It’s here to stay.
So those are the key advantages that online retailers have: convenience, speed, cost and range. But they’re not inviolable idols of perfection. They don’t get everything right. One of the most common mistakes that online retailers make is somehow to imagine that their job is done when the merchandise is shipped and disappears from their warehouses. Because, ultimately, online retail is like any other kind of selling: the customer really is always right, and if the customer’s not satisfied, you’re not doing your job properly.
Everyone has their own horror story. Items that arrived in the wrong colour or size, or one where you wanted half a dozen, or vice-versa. The classic mistake of buying what looked like a full-sized item only to discover it was Lilliputian. Deliveries that failed to arrive, or were left with the wrong neighbour, or tossed casually over a garden gate for the dog to savage. It happens all the time, and, unfortunately, it’s the sort of frustrating experience that sticks in the mind. “Have you ordered anything from X retailer?” “Yeah, once, but it arrived really late/never arrived/was all wrong.” That kind of anecdotal marketing is fatal to a company’s prospects.
I don’t entirely blame the retailers. Their ruthless focus is on shifting units, and the more, the better: more sales, greater profit, more expansion, even greater profit. It’s a simple equation. But it’s a cut-throat business, now more than ever, and if they want to survive, let alone prosper, they have to factor in customer satisfaction. The very reason that people use online retailers is often convenience; if something is late, or doesn’t arrive at all, or is somehow wrong, then pulls at the thread and the whole fabric of convenient shopping unravels. If you can’t rely on the online retailer, you may as well save yourself for a trip to a physical store, where you can browse, and handle the merchandise, and interact with a knowledgeable customer assistant: you can have, in other words, a properly immersive and satisfying retail experience. Online retailers can only promise to cut this out and take away all the hassle. If any of it is reintroduced by mistakes or poor customer service, they’ve failed on their USP.
I get that it’s a difficult balance. Great customer service doesn’t come cheaply; it requires training, investment, quality control and simply a bit of care. But online retailers absolutely have to get it right if they want to maintain their market share, before they can even think of growing it. It’s not an option, not a ‘nice to have’. It’s as important as convenience and price. Customers have never had a wider range of retail opportunities. They can afford to be picky. No-one can afford to put them off.