Is the shine wearing off the on-line retail gem?  Customer service has always been the Achilles heel of on-line retailers and it seems as though it’s a problem that’s not going away.

In November, Nick Robertson of ASOS and Mark Newton-jones from Shop Direct told delegates to the Skillsmart Retail Parliamentary reception hosted by the Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, Nigel Evans MP, that on-line retailers need to learn customer service from traditional retailers.  On-line customer complaints are high and margins are stretched when the e-tailers try to up their anti.  However, this week Mary Portas has been taking the High Street to task for what she says is “crap” customer service.  So, like most things, it seems its not that simple.

What this boils down to is the age-old marketing fundamental of playing to your strengths.  Internet retailers are never going to have the same opportunities to foster “Brandships” that a high street retailer has, so if the traditional players fail to leverage that now, I for one, won’t be sympathetic to their future cries of “unfair” when their business is left in the dust of the smart young things of e-commerce.

The Internet is a cold and impersonal place.  You have to work much harder than you might on the High Street to achieve anything close to that warm cuddly feeling you get in your favourite store.  To a customer, feeling “at home” with a retail brand is everything (actually, feeling at home with any kind of brand is the key to business success) but achieving this requires the ticking of a lot of boxes.  Some of these boxes are purely practical, like availability, delivery, ease of use, customer service, which is where the Internet brands can compete.  Sure they are failing on customer service right now, partly because the business model that remains viable when the levels of returns and complaints that this channel is prone to has yet to be found, but they’ll get there.  Meanwhile, the “trads” need to wise-up and start polishing up the soft elements of Brand Promise that are tougher for the e-shops to influence.

I’m thinking environment.  Sure you can make an on-line environment comfortable and inviting to customers and it’s not beyond our capability to even modify the on-line environment of a single e-retailer to fit different customer types, but the trads definitely have more scope.  My readers will know that I’ve been focusing on in-store music recently and that’s because its one of those great untapped opportunities of retail brand building.

Shoppers love in-store music when its right.  Give them what they want and they’ll visit you more often, stay longer, spend more and tell all their friends, or so the gurus at  tell us.  Retailers know they can influence behaviour of shoppers and staff with the right music and store staff say the right music makes them feel more energised, so you’ll take care of some of Mary’s customer service issues too.  Put all this together and you can’t fail.  But, the onus is on the words “the right music” and that’s where the work needs to be done.

It seems we all know music works, but the secret of quite how it does so are held by only a very few.  People like Bruno Brookes and the rest of the folks at Immedia Broadcast who have been creating bespoke live radio for some of the High Street’s biggest brands for the past ten years.  However, you don’t have to own a multi-million dollar radio station to add something extra to your brand or even drive sales, because with the right play-list a simple music stream will do both and that’s what Immedia are doing right now with their new Dreamstream offer.  Retail marketers need to disabuse themselves of the belief that they know what music works with their audience and hand the job over to the experts who know what “tailoring” really means, then perhaps we’ll be able to wave goodbye to the ubiquitous local radio station (that actually can do more harm to trade than good) or repetitive CD’s of nearly-bands playing covers and start hearing more in-store music that reinforces the brand and fosters real “Brandships”.  Then the High Street will really be able to show the e-tailers a thing or two about brand-building.

Michael Weaver
January 21, 2011

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