September 15, 2009, 12:00 AM

The secret to fewer returns? Answer customer questions, one retailer says

Ordering auto parts online can be tricky. To help consumers find exactly the right part for their vehicle the first time around, JC Whitney has launched a service that allows shoppers to post questions to its site to be answered by others.

Ordering automotive parts online can be tricky. Consumers shopping on the web need exactly the right part for the year, make and model of their vehicle. To help consumers receive just the product to fit their vehicles the first time around, auto parts retailer JC Whitney launched a new service that allows shoppers to post questions to its retail site to be answered by staff, auto parts vendors or other consumers.

So far, the system is paying off. Returns have dropped 23% since the retailer launched the Ask and Answer service from vendor Bazaarvoice Inc. in early 2008, says Tom West, president and CEO of JC Whitney. And of the products that contain more than 20 questions and answers, 80% now have a lower return rate than they did before the service was launched.

“Automotives is a very complex category, we offer 20,000 unique parts on our site alone,” says West. “The average vehicle on the road is 10.5 years old and there are 250 million vehicles on the road in the U.S. alone. The more we can tap other peoples’ expertise, the better."

JC Whitney marks questions answered by employees with a Staff badge and answers from auto parts vendors with an Expert badge. Customers who provide lots of answers on the site are identified as Top Contributors.

“The more questions with answers on an item, the less instances there are of shoppers buying the wrong thing,” West says. He adds that he can tell customers are using the service because the number of page views for products that have questions and answers are higher than for those that don’t have the feature.

West says the service not only helps shoppers, but also helps vendors spot new product or marketing opportunities. For example, if several customers are asking for a product that the vendor doesn’t make, it might want to consider introducing it. Or, if customers are asking the same questions about a product on a frequent basis, a vendor may want to change its packaging or instructions so that it clearly answers the questions. West says of the 2,000 vendors JC Whitney works with, between 10 and 20 actively answer questions on the site.

JC Whitney also offers live chat and allows customers to e-mail questions to customer service reps. Whitney Automotive Group is No. 115 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide.

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