Ecommerce – the good, the bad, and the ugly

5 August 2009 by Kevin Holdridge  
Filed under News and views

Selling on the Web

One of my favourite aphorisms is “on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog”.  Using Web and email, you can reach customers and project your presence just as effectively as big, long-established corporates. In fact, if you’re nimble and smart about it, you can outplay them.  Not all the clients I see necessarily believe this at first – they assume that the big guys have brand, reputation, and infrastructure behind them, making them invincible. Well, here’s an example of my online shopping experience last month that nicely illustrates how all of that counts for nothing and how a bit of passion makes all  the difference.

Too many pizzas meant I neeeded a new suit with room for growth. Being a man of a certain age and conservative tastes living outside a major city, the obvious choice used to be Marks and Spencer.  A visit to the local store soon confirmed that I am no longer in their target market. The only options available were a visit to Manchester or buying on the Internet. I had no time for the former during business hours, so ecommerce seemed the obvious choice.

Buying clothes on the Web  offers fantastic possibilities (access to huge range of styles, fabrics, colours, and ability to compare prices) but also has a few potential barriers (you can’t try for fit, can’t feel the fabrics, colour can be deceptive onscreen, and you can’t walk out with the product). But, good clothing ecommerce sites can overcome the barriers for would-be customers through:

  • Listing stock levels for each item
  • Offering fast delivery options with information on expected arrival dates
  • Having good quality images of the products
  • Using modern tools to allow the customer to get a more confident view of the product  (magnifying glasses enabling detail view, 360 degree rotation, images of the clothes on models, detailed specifications listed)
  • Giving good guidance on sizing
  • Providing a simple and efficient returns and exchange service

Here’s what happened when I gave it a go …

The bad ecommerce experience – Austin Reed

Austin Reed is a big name, trading for over a hundred years. Their website declares their own brilliance thus: “Austin Reed has transformed itself from a traditional business into a dynamic and progressive group, boasting over 70 outlets in the UK with international licensees across the globe.” So, you’d imagine they’d got the hang of retail? Maybe they have instore, but online is another matter.

I thought I’d do a test purchase before committing to a  large-ticket item. Just as well I did. I ordered a plain black belt. Everything should have been pretty straightforward. The website allowed me to see the products in detail using a magnifier, and picking the size was simple.

Delivery was fairly quick. Unfortunately, though, the belt delivered was a completely different product. I rechecked on  the website to make sure the error wasn’t mine – sure enough, the product was nothing like the description. Austin Reed provide a simple returns procedure, with a prepaid postage label. Rather than return for a refund, I wanted to exchange for the product listed and displayed on the website. So, instead of sending the belt back, I emailed their customer service team asking what the correct product code was.

It took 6 days and two chasers to get a reply. That message didn’t even include the usual bland, insincere corprorate apology that we have come to expect and cherish nowadays. The content also did not inspire confidence in Austin Reed’s ability or enthusiasm to get me what I had ordered: “We will endeavour to send the correct item, however if we are unable to locate this item we will have no choice but to refund the item back onto the card you used for the purchase.”  As they clearly didn’t know their own stock and website, I decided to cut my losses, and sent the item back for a refund.

The refund did come through reasonably promptly. However, Austin Reed quietly kept £5 of my hard-earned money, presumably for the postage cost involved in their erroneously sending me the wrong product!  I also see today that the incorrect product details still haven’t been updated on the website, even though they’ve known for 3 weeks that the entry is wrong.

Needless to say given that bad ecommerce experience, I wasn’t willing to risk buying online from these guys for a larger ticket item. So, they lost a potential sale worth several hundred Pounds due entirely to poor organisation and lack of interest. They have also gained this critical online review. A classic example of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

The better ecommerce experience – Charles Tyrwhitt

Charles Tyrwhitt is a relatively young upstart compared to Austin Reed. However, they are strong at online selling and marketing. I took the risk of buying the new suit from them because of the following:

  • The website displayed product information well and in ways relevant to me as a prospective customer (well categorised; easy to filter by style, colour and product characteristics; good and helpful product images)
  • There was clear information on stock levels and availability (including expected dates for out-of-stock items)
  • Delivery options and timings were clearly stated
  • There were customer reviews providing me with more information and confidence

I’m now the satisfied owner of a Charles Tyrwhitt suit. I wouldn’t say its the best suit I’ve ever owned, but it was delivered on time and met specification and expectation. Customer service was slick, with informative confirmation emails along the way worded in such a way that I felt the company cared about the order and my custom.

Selling online – the lessons

My conclusions are that – if you approach ecommerce in an appropriate and businesslike manner – you can outperform larger and well established competitors.  Investing in an ecommerce solution that quickly builds confidence in visitors who may never have heard of you, and helps prospective customers smoothly to the checkout can put you ahead of the competition.  But, remember that it is not just about the ecommerce website itself – if your customer care or order fulfilment is sub-standard you will quickly lose business and reputation. Online selling may be an exciting new channel with its own quirks and challenges, but it is still subject to the traditional principles of effective retail management and marketing. A little enthusiasm also goes a long way!