July 29, 2004, 12:00 AM

Getting customers to sound off helps CustomInk boost sales

T-shirt and coffee mug vendor CustomInk attributes a big portion of its 10-20% annual growth to an in-house-developed feedback feature it launched two years ago. Customers have the opportunity to sound off about products and service.

One of the beauties of web selling is that retailers can easily use customer feedback to prompt others to buy. While testimonials are probably as old as retailing itself, the web makes it easier to pop them in front of customers.

But even more importantly, the web helps retailers determine whether testimonials work at all. The verdict from CustomInk.com: They’re great. CustomInk, retailer of self-customized screen-printed T-shirts, baseball caps and coffee mugs, has collected feedback from 10,000 customers. It posts a few comments and a link to the rest prominently on its home page. Users who click on the comments are five times more likely than those who don’t view them to complete a purchase, says Marc Katz, CEO and co-founder. “The feedback feature is great for a web business where you don’t have face-to-face contact with customers,” he says.

CustomInk makes the feedback feature serve another purpose by sharing comments-good and bad-with employees and subcontractors to reinforce positive practices and call attention to weak ones, Katz says.

Since CustomInk launched its in-house-developed feedback feature two years ago, it has boosted sales 10-20%, Katz says. The site is profitable and sells more than 1 million T-shirts a year, he says.

Another benefit of feedback, Katz says, is that it can be a source of new product ideas, such as the personalized polo shirts and foam-rubber cup-holders that CustomInk has added. Such customer-inspired products now account for 3%-4% of sales, Katz says. In other cases, the site responded to customer concerns by introducing a zoom tool to let customers see the speckles in some shirt designs.

CustomInk also mines the feedback for product information, using such data in, for instance, product descriptions when a certain style is known to fit unusually tight or loose.

CustomInk seeks feedback in brief surveys, which are e-mailed to customers a few days after their delivery confirmation. Customers are asked to rate, on a scale of one to seven, five aspects of their shopping experience: the web site itself, customer service, the product apart from the printing, the printing feature and packaging. They’re also asked to add written comments into a text box.

The retailer gets a high response rate and found that incentives like coupons are not necessary to elicit responses, Katz says.

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