A daily bulletin of news & opinion

24 August 2012

At 27, I am among the eldest of the “internet generation” – those that have ostensibly grown up using the World Wide Web for everything from education, to work, to leisure. We were “born digital”, it’s been claimed, with the internet playing such an intrinsic role in our upbringing that our entire worldview is shaped by it.

One of the biggest impacts of the digital shift is in terms of consumption – from music and magazines to flights and fashion. Things are being sold online more than ever, and as my generation settles into our careers and earns some disposable income it’s a trend that isn’t losing any steam.

But as we translate our consumerism online, many retailers have forgotten that despite the change in platform, we still want the same things from an internet purchase as we do from a bricks and mortar shop.

There’s a fallacy floating around the internet that online is “easy”: no need for a storefront and sales staff, more automation, and trading in complex visual merchandising and just lumping every item together into simple categories: shirts, outerwear, accessories.

In reality, online retail requires the same level of personal care, considered design, visual appeal and curatorial effort as does a physical shop.

And, while my preference for buying clothes is indeed by going to a shop, I have recently taken my first steps into the world of website retail. Two times, two different online shops, two very different experiences.

The first was perfect. Browsing the site was an enjoyable experience. Clicking through, you weren’t only given details about the products but a bit of information about each brand, as well as a few editorial comments, which were much like the snippets of advice a shopkeeper might offer. My purchase was delivered the next day, carefully wrapped.

My next experience was starkly different. It quickly became apparent that for this next retailer, being online was a side project – as opposed to the first, they also have physical shops throughout Europe.

Despite a limited selection on their site and a painfully rudimentary organisation of their products, I still managed to load a few things into my basket, pay and feel somewhat satisfied.

But that’s where my satisfaction ended. They’d delivered the wrong items. So, I rang them.

Despite the retailer being based in London, I was calling Ireland. I ran through my order but the names of items on the website differed from the names on their internal stock list. So, I was made to describe every article of clothing and work out with the out-sourced operator which pieces I “really” meant. What followed were several calls back and forth to rearrange delivery, payment (which had been refunded and now had to be remade by phone), and amendments to the order (some of the items I’d purchased were out of stock by this time). I never once spoke to, or received an email from the same person more than once.

The perils of trying to make “easy” sales online became evident. They’ve missed out on everything that makes shopping enjoyable. There was a lack of service, so I didn’t feel valued. There was no real information about the products, nothing in the description to suggest they cared about what they were selling. And, if they don’t care, why should I?

An online shop will never completely mimic the experience of physical retail but it should not be its cheap cousin either.

To build a loyal customer, even one of the web-addicted internet generation, you have to invest in them. Finding ways to reproduce the sense of familiarity and community, or demonstrate that you know and care about the products you sell may be difficult. But, it is the same key to success online as it is on the high street.


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