June 30, 2014, 3:44 PM

Shoppers show the way

Many success stories reported at IRCE started with online retailers listening to consumers—and encouraging them to reach out to other shoppers.

Lead Photo

When online retailer Wayfair LLC launched a flash-sale site three years ago it did not allow customers to return items they bought. Executives at the home furnishings retailer reasoned that the new site, called Joss & Main, would only sell a product for a limited time, and by the time a shopper returned a product it's likely Wayfair would no longer sell it.

That made sense to Wayfair executives, and they knew most other online flash-sale sites weren't accepting returns for the same reason. But that didn't mean the policy made sense to the consumers shopping the site.

"Joss & Main customers did not like our no-returns policy and they were vocal about it," Wayfair CEO Niraj Shah explained last month in a second-day keynote presentation at the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition in Chicago. "Last year we started offering returns, and our customers were thrilled."

The retailer received some returns, but not many, Shah said, though he did not provide details. And the policy change removed a hurdle to a shopper making a purchase. The lesson, he said, is to listen to your customers. "If you let customers talk, and hold yourself back and listen and take diligent notes and ask lots of questions and be open-minded, they'll basically tell you how to grow your business—because they know the answer."

It was a theme repeated often at IRCE: The online shopper can be the most valuable ally to a retailer who pays attention to what she wants. Not only will consumers provide invaluable feedback, happy shoppers will take to social networks to broadcast their delight. And when those social posts take the form of videos or imagery, they can be even more effective, IRCE speakers reported.

It all starts with speaking the consumer's language— and not industry jargon—a theme emphasized by IRCE's first-day keynote speaker, John Donahoe, CEO of eBay Inc.

"We think in channel terms. We use a merchant vocabulary," he said. "Consumers don't care about channels. Consumers just want to shop."

With that in mind, eBay has conducted experiments combining online and offline assets to make shopping more convenient, Donahoe explained. For example, in the United Kingdom a consumer who buys from an eBay seller can pick up the item at 740 stores operated by general merchandise retailer Argos. In Westfield Mall in San Francisco, eBay installed touchscreen displays on the windows of three stores where consumers can order from those retailers' e-commerce sites, even if the store is closed. "We'll see interesting combinations of online and offline to leverage the best of both to offer the consumer great service and choice," Donahoe said.

Choice is the key, he emphasized. "Look at everything through the consumer's eye. Understand that the consumer likes choice, and if you can't offer that choice, evaluate ways you can partner with others to offer that choice."

Throughout the four-day conference, retailers explained how they're getting better at looking at online shopping through their customers' eyes—and how they're adapting their marketing, e-commerce sites and mobile sites and apps accordingly.

One example came from Ubisoft Entertainment S.A., a French video game developer and publisher that radically overhauled its online marketing for its Rocksmith video game when it updated the title last year. The game is designed to teach users to play the guitar. Market research showed that many consumers who have dreamed for years of learning guitar often find once they've bought an instrument and try to learn it that playing guitar is harder than they imagined, Tim Washburn, executive vice president and creative director of The Nomadic Agency, explained in an IRCE presentation. With that in mind, Ubisoft, working with The Nomadic Agency, geared its web campaign around the slogan "The fastest way to learn guitar."

"We wanted to sell the dream, but we were selling learning software," said Scott Sappenfield, director of marketing and brand management at Ubisoft, who spoke with Washburn. "Marketing had to be focused on making learning seem possible, even probable. And we really needed to quantify fast."

To do that, Ubisoft recruited seven would-be musicians to take a "60-day challenge": learn guitar by playing Rocksmith an hour a day. The brand sent film crews to the participants' homes to film them, and created mini-documentaries about each that it posted on YouTube. Collectively, the seven videos attracted some 1 million views on YouTube.

What's more, other novice guitarists starting to take the "60-day challenge," creating their own videos that they posted to YouTube, Washburn said. "The more success they shared, the more believable this campaign became," he added.

And many consumers evidently were convinced: Sales of Rocksmith 2014 during last year's holiday season exceeded sales of the original version by 10%.

Another retailer looking at web shopping through today's shoppers' eyes is Joyus, which has posted 700 shoppable videos on Joyus.com. Consumers can buy right from the video, without going to a product page. Chairman and founder Sukhinder Singh Cassidy explained in an IRCE featured address that TV channels like QVC and Home Shopping Network showed consumers will watch shopping shows as entertainment and that, with 78% of Americans watching an online video at least once a week, the combination of shopping and online video seemed to her a natural fit. But it's taken some trial and error to succeed at it, she explained.

Joyus, which launched in 2011, initially showed many videos about food products and home décor, Singh Cassidy said, but found that many consumers prefer to buy those products offline. "You need to find a product that many people are interested in watching—and buying," she said. "If the content cost is high, you have to think of high ROI." That's led Joyus to focus on products that are not readily available in bricks-and-mortar stores, or on Amazon.com, and that many shoppers will want to buy. Videos on the site today, for example, feature apparel, jewelry, personal care products and workout gear.

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