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Experience is Everything in Retail - But What Does That Mean Online?

16 August 2018

By Drew Smith

Drew is the Director of Product Strategy at Volo and focuses on how technology can help brands and retailers deliver what their customers want.

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Creating a unique and powerful customer experience is one of the top strategic priorities for fashion and apparel brands, but it shouldn’t be limited to flashy instore concepts or beautiful branding (not that there’s anything wrong with either).

As shopping moves online ever faster, brands must adapt their understanding of experiential retail to include the ecommerce world in order to really create a seamless and engaging experience. Here’s how brands stand out and deliver unique online experiences.

 

1. Nail the basics

Customer expectations have risen rapidly in the last five years thanks to the all-consuming power of Amazon’s Prime shipping offering, as well as innovators such as Stitchfix and ASOS who have put simple, convenient returns at the core of their model.

That means that fast shipping, reasonably quick free shipping, generous returns policies and an array of last-mile fulfilment options are fast approaching table stakes status. For now, they still earn retailers and brands some brownie points with customers, but as this level becomes the new normal that benefit will fade.

2. Have an innovative customer journey

Innovation is an overused term. Changing the background colour of your ecomm site isn’t exactly UX innovation – but crafting a branded customer journey from content to product to purchase just might be.

For example: Nike has developed an immense customer marketing machine through its social channels and app offering. These channels are content-led, offering customers value through training tips & coaching apps, or the latest sneaker news. By selling a brand, a lifestyle and a culture first, Nike are selling more shoes second.

It sounds like a massive ask for many brands, but why should it be? Perhaps only a few brands truly know what content their customers would actually want from them, in which case the brand proposition itself is perhaps not being articulated properly.

3. KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid

Amazon is the second biggest apparel retailer in the US. Why do its customers use it? Well, about two thirds name the ease of browsing and searching as a reason. Experience is often cited as a motivator for loyalty, and this is clearly the case here – but when we focus on ‘experience’ as a primarily instore, sensory, design-led or visual aspect, we’re missing the point. Amazon’s site isn’t exactly a looker as far as stunning visuals are concerned. It just works. It’s a byword for reliable.

amazon apparel business size

That doesn’t mean a brand’s site should look like Amazon. But it should 'just work'.

Let’s look at another major apparel retailer – ASOS. Credit to Chris Lake (@lakey) for highlighting this next data point.

asos site performance

Well, having praised them previously for their great delivery and return options, it’s time for criticism. Nearly 11 seconds to fully load a product page is pretty appalling, even though this time isn’t exactly representative of the customer’s experience on the site itself. Mobile browsing makes this even worse to deal with.

It’s worth noting that ASOS does well in most UX regards, as you’d expect. The fact that even they have got a long way to go in terms of site speed and mobile optimisation when they have the advantage of a relatively light design should be a cause for concern for brands whose sites have significantly heavier pages and potentially less relentless focus on optimisation.

4. Have a great plan for when it goes wrong

No business in the world gets it right 100% of the time. What matters is what happens next. Digitally savvy customers get onto Twitter to complain. Digitally savvy brands monitor 24/7 for such complaints and redress them fast. Twitter and other social platforms are a double-edged sword for consumer brands. Get customer service right here, and the brand benefits from a public affirmation of its commitment to do right by its customers. Get it wrong, however, and one voice can amplify a single poor experience to an audience of hundreds of thousands.

That’s why leading brands have specialist round-the-clock customer support on social: it minimises the risk of brand damage, and creates authentic, organic positive associations for the brand. Marketers spend tens of thousands for that kind of impact, but many brands are reluctant to invest in the less glamorous work of customer support.

 

In summary, a lot of retail industry talk currently focuses on making the store experience special and different, so that customers want to go to physical stores. What’s missing?  Two things:

First is the understanding that customers also need incentives to go to an online store, and that a compelling experience has a massive part to play in attracting customers to come back again and again.

Secondly, brands must acknowledge that experience is so much more than engaging or delightful moments in a store. It’s the totality of how your customer interacts with you, on every channel. Amazon doesn’t do beautiful store merchandising (yet), but it’s still winning. That’s not to say nobody should bother with making their store look and feel amazing. But perhaps the focus is still too much on the flash and too little on the function.

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