November 25, 2008, 12:00 AM

A small apparel retailer turns to consumer reviews to help maintain sales

Recognizing that consumers’ passion about the product is what sells apparel made of natural alpaca fiber,AlpacaDirect.com has turned to a new consumer-generated reviews application designed for small retailers, founder and CEO Jim Hobart says.

Recognizing that consumers’ passion about the product is what sells apparel made of natural alpaca fiber, AlpacaDirect.com has turned to a new consumer-generated reviews application designed for small retailers, founder and CEO Jim Hobart says.

“We know we have happy customers, but now our customers can tell other shoppers how happy they are,” Hobart says. AlpacaDirect.com, which specializes in retailing apparel made from Pima cotton as well as Alpaca, has been doubling sales in recent years but until recently figured it was too small to deploy a consumer-generated reviews application.

The retail site, launched in early 2005, sells less than $10 million a year in merchandise. In September, it deployed PowerReviews Express, a new consumer reviews application that PowerReviews Inc. is officially launching next week. PowerReviews Express was designed with much of the same functionality of the Enterprise version designed for larger retailers, says Andy Chen, CEO of PowerReviews.

Retailers with more than $10 million in online sales can deploy PowerReviews Enterprise at no charge if they agree to share their review content on the vendor’s Buzzillions.com shopping site. Participating retailers pay PowerReviews affiliate fees for any sales generated on Buzzillions.com.

Smaller retailers don’t generate enough sales and affiliate fees to participate in Buzzillions.com, so PowerReviews is making the Express application available to them at a flat fee that starts at $80 per month, Chen says. More than 300 small retailers have deployed the Express application since it was launched in a beta test program in August, he adds.

In addition, Express is designed for small retailers whose web sites may be hosted by third parties, Chen says. “Many small online retailers don’t host their own content, so we host Express content for them on dedicated servers from Akamai Technologies Inc.,” he says. “So there are no I.T. requirements for retailers using Express. We just drop a JavaScipt code on the retailer’s site to connect it to the Akamai servers.”

Express is also designed to let retailer clients use their own site design technology, which typically incorporates Cascading Style Sheets, to modify content such as color, fonts and ratings symbols like stars to develop review content that suits their site’s image, Chen says. “You don’t have to commission a professional service engagement to use Express,” he adds.

At AlpacaDirect.com, Hobart expects the consumer review content to help maintain growth as the retailer deals with the struggling economy, he says.

Using SurveyMonkey.com to generate customer feedback, Hobart has learned that 96% of his customers refer AlpacaDirect.com to a friend, and that 77% are repeat customers. Many of them like sharing comments on the wonders of the alpaca fiber, which comes from the native South American alpaca, a relatively small cousin of the llama that produces fiber known to be as smooth but sturdier and warmer than cashmere.

With the down economy, the retailer is turning to consumer reviews to help spread its reputation, Hobart says. “We offer an engaging user experience, unique products and great customer service, and now we also have customer reviews to build word of mouth,” he says.

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