June 10, 2008, 12:00 AM

How an online home improvement retailer is addressing consumer resistance

Consumers want to see and touch items and worry about accepting delivery of bulky items, says Christian Friedland, president of Improvement Direct. The e-retailer is countering those concerns with videos that show products and explain shipping.

While more than half of books are bought online, only 5.7% of home improvement buyers make even one online purchase in a year, said Christian Friedland, president of Improvement Direct Inc. Two big reasons: consumers want to see, touch and feel products like plumbing fixtures, and they fear the hassles of accepting delivery of heavy items or expensive products that require signatures.

Improvement Direct, an online-only retailer of plumbing fixtures and home improvement products, is taking steps to address those two concerns, Friedland explained today in a featured address at the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition in Chicago.

To address the desire to touch and feel items, Improvement Direct has created an in-house photo studio that takes images of products from several angles, and then creates Flash-based images that allow site visitors to spin an item to get a complete view of it. Where the e-retailer has created these 360-degree views of products, conversion rates increased by 20%, Friedland said.

The retailer also is creating its own videos that allow knowledgeable employees to provide information about products. And it is offering customers samples of some products so they can literally see, touch and feel the product before they make a commitment to buy.

Most consumers have had the experience of waiting around all day for an item to be delivered, Friedland said, and the desire to avoid that scenario filters back into customer behavior when considering an online purchase of an item that requires use of freight carriers and not consumer-oriented services such as UPS or Federal Express. “When somebody is about to check out for a large freight-challenged item, they think to themselves, ‘Do I want to pick this up at a store rather than spending a day waiting for delivery?’”

Friedland encouraged online retailers to work with freight carriers to improve the last-mile experience for shoppers who do buy heavy, bulky and expensive items online. For instance, he encourages retailers to emulate the travel industry, which sends text messages to customers’ mobile phones when flights are delayed. Retailers can do the same, working with LTL, or less-than-load, carriers that track their trucks via global positioning satellite devices.

“How nice would it be to have a text message when expecting an LTL or signature-required delivery that your driver will be present in an hour? Now you can run back to your house; it gives you more control,” he said. “This is a significant way to improve the customer experience and take away the hesitation before hitting the checkout button.”

Improvement Direct, No. 148 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, also is trying to set customer expectations about what to expect with a video created in house that explains what will happen when the customer buys an item that must be delivered by a freight carrier, how to inspect the item upon delivery, and what to do if items are missing or damaged. Steps like these, Friedland said, can help home improvement retailers overcome the concerns that keep many consumers from buying online.

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