I have just gone through an interesting experience with a manufacturer that has really driven home to me the heightened significance of two elements in the marketing process brought about by the growth of Internet retailing.

My story starts with the on-line purchase of a pair of sports shoes.  I play a lot of sports, a consequence of which is the array of specialist technical shoes in my wardrobe.  I was keen to try a particular brand of shoe that I hadn’t worn before and although I was aware of the possible sizing pitfalls, because I had worn just about every other make over the years, I know what my size is and I understand the principles of construction and manufacture, so I ordered my shoes on-line with confidence.  Besides, this particular brand of shoe is almost exclusively an on-line product, so there wasn’t an option and I couldn’t do what so many people do with other brands and products and walk into a shop to try them on before ordering on-line.

Just to prove Sod’s Law, when they arrived they were too small.  Not just a nat’s too small, but significantly so.  The cost of postage was included in the deal with the retailer, but to return the shoes for exchange was going to cost me £5.00, so I paused for thought.  I rang the retailer and who was blithely unaware of the sizing discrepancy, but said it explained the high number of returns he was getting.  However, he couldn’t tell me what size I should take, so I called the manufacturer.

Speaking to the category manager I learned that they knew of the sizing problem and had addressed this in later production runs, but as a result there are now at least two different sizing systems in circulation for the same product on a variety of retailer’s shelves – chaos!  To make matters worse, they hadn’t advised retailers of the problem.

The standardising of sizes is clearly a big issue for apparel manufacturers who rely to any extent on on-line retailers and as I discovered, where shoes are concerned the subject is a minefield.  It seems the world is not confined to the European, UK and US sizing systems, but tens of others too and depending on where in the world production is based the factories are often translating sizes from one system to another.  Even this isn’t simple because the size increments vary widely between systems so a European 42 for example may be roughly equivalent to a UK 8, but a Euro 43 is somewhere between a UK 8.5 and 9!

This brings me around to the second of my two elements – customer service.  As far as I was concerned the reputaion of this manufacturer was saved by their customer services team.  After trying three different sizes, I found a fit in the shoes I originally wanted, but had it not been for the dilligence of the customer services person I was dealing with, I would have been faced with a bill for mailing at least three pairs of shoes and I would have just reverted to a tried and tested brand.  Plus, as I am always quoting, if they had ever wanted to sell me anything else again, it would cost the offending manufacturer one-hundred-times the cost of an initial sale to entice me back again.

There are so many lessons to be learned from this its difficult to know where to start.  For example, I’d like to compare the cost of the necessary additional customer service to the saving offered by the on-line channel and I’d be interested to follow through on the satisfaction levels of customers who had purchased these shoes already.  Sales of these models might be OK, but what is going to happen in the future and if, as I suspect, volumes will fall in coming seasons as a result of this issue, what will be the cost to the company of  rebuilding its market share, in an increasingly competitive sector?  There are lessons for internal marketing in the exclusion of the retailers in the information chain and brand equity too.

One thing is clear however, this is a vivid example of what can happen when one link in your integrated marketing strategy fails.  In this case, it was the product development or manufacturing operations elements that were at fault, both critical areas of marketing as is customer service, which in this case saved the day for the manufacturer and at least ensured that they live to battle for business next time around.

Michael Weaver
February 1, 2010

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