Thursday, October 15, 2009

Why is advice so hard to take?

Consultant Martin Newman has just published a blog post of top tips for selling more over the Christmas period. All his advice is sound and I recommend that anyone in charge of a retail website should read his blog post.

The interesting question is why aren’t merchants already doing all the things suggested? Selling online has been going on for 15 years now and yet many merchants persist in following bad practices indentified many years ago. I suppose I shouldn’t complain – both Martin and I make our livings helping merchants improve their sites and that’s easier if the sites have obvious failings – but it seems odd that so many ecommerce web sites are still, frankly, not very good.

It can’t be just money, though clearly it often is. Tesco aren’t short of cash yet their site doesn’t follow many of Martin’s tips. We’ve had clients at Digivate who’ve refused to make changes we’ve suggested despite clear evidence that the investment would be recouped in months.

Perhaps people just fear change. Perhaps people feel that they already have enough to worry about and so decide to leave a ‘good enough’ website alone.

What do you think?

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Home Delivery Network fail again

Last week I was stunned into silence (if you know me you’ll know how rare this is) by a second utterly failed delivery by HDN. They left my parcel – without asking me in advance or telling me afterwards – in the care of a neighbour. And I don’t mean next door, I mean someone I don’t know who lives half a mile away. (In my part of the country that counts as a neighbour as there are only four houses between us.) To make it even more extraordinary, my house was occupied all day and I had given my mobile number to the merchant. So as far as I’m concerned HDN have no excuses.

This wasn’t an innocent error. HDN rang my neighbour to arrange delivery of a parcel to her. When the driver arrived he said that he had a second parcel – mine – and would she mind if he left it with her. Despite being new to the area and not knowing me, she felt she wasn’t able to say no. No one contacted me about this unexpected plan. My neighbour didn’t know me or where my house is – our village has no street names or house numbers. HDN evidently feels that a promise to deliver a parcel is kept if the parcel ends up somewhere in the vague neighbourhood of the delivery address. Why bother with the correct address or telling the addressee what you’ve done? Sooner or later they’ll realise that something is wrong and chase it up.

A day after I expected the parcel to arrive I rang HDN to chase my parcel; the agent had no idea why it hadn’t been delivered to me but he did give me the name and address where it had been delivered, and a lame apology. Now at that time I did not know my neighbour, but I did know that she had only moved in a few weeks ago so wouldn’t be listed in the telephone book. Luckily I did know the estate agent that had dealt with the let and because they knew me I was able to get my neighbour’s mobile number, saving me the time of driving round with a note. The bad news was that she had taken the parcel with her to work (why?) and her shift ended at 10pm. As luck would have it, I’d driven past her workplace earlier that day in blissful ignorance that my parcel lurked in the car park.

In the end my neighbour – looking rather put-upon – delivered the parcel the following morning, which was just as well because I left the house that afternoon for a five-day trip. And I was relying on taking with me some of the items in the parcel.

So HDN have now failed two deliveries in a row and are henceforth to be known as NDN or Non-Delivery Network. And I will be wary of buying from any merchant that uses them!

Friday, September 18, 2009

What went wrong at Innovations?

I was reminded of my years at Innovations by getting a tweet about a Telegraph article listing '50 things that are being killed by the internet', with the Innovations catalogue at number 19.

Innovations was where – like many friends and colleagues in the home shopping industry – I learnt most of what I know about mail order and direct mail. The article got me thinking about what went wrong at Innovations. Can the internet be blamed for the fading away of this once ubiquitous brand?

Because Sharper Image, the American inspiration for Innovations, has also foundered, I suspect that the real problem is not the internet. Both catalogues had early success online; at Innovations we took the first secure online order in the UK, and Sharper Image pioneered full integration between channels.

But in both the UK and the USA the vast majority of innovative and exciting products are now consumer electronics or web based services. Few of these work as catalogue products; for example electronic dictionaries were a great product for Innovations but I don’t suppose anyone even makes them anymore. The modern pace of electronics development leaves catalogue production schedules in the dust, with new products being launched every few months. Headlines like ‘longest battery life’ or ‘most pixels under £X’ are almost impossible now because some new product has arrived in the months between the copy being written and the catalogue dropping. The production volumes required to make electronic products price-competitive mean that few importers can offer exclusives to catalogues. The final insult is the meagre profit margins, insufficient to cover expensive print runs, but enough to provide countless web only suppliers.

So I blame the demise of Innovations on plain technological progress, not the internet.

What do you think?

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Augmented Reality: profit driver or techy toy?

You may have read about ‘Augmented Reality’, or AR, the latest techno catch phrase used to denote gadgets or software that superimpose layers of visual data onto ‘real life’. Two examples from the world of ecommerce caught my eye this week and both are worth looking at. But should merchants be adding AR to their list of website upgrades?

The first is an AR application for Glasses Direct:

You can try it for yourself (if you have a PC) by visiting

The second is an application that is supposed to help shoppers decide if clothes suit them:

My advice is to avoid this sort of feature for the foreseeable future. It can’t really replicate the experience of feeling and wearing a pair of glasses or a shirt and it is probably beyond the technological capabilities of all but the most dedicated shopper. The best AR can do is replicate holding up a garment in front of you, but holding up and trying on are two very different things. The Glasses Direct application - when refined - might be the exception that proves the rule, but for most other fashion categories I predict that AR will not be useful.

These both remind me of ‘My Virtual Model’, a feature introduced by Lands End in 2005 or so. It was very fiddly to use and although it is still active on the Lands End site it is hard to find and I haven’t seen it anywhere else.

None of these applications are playing to the strengths of the internet, just trying (and failing) to reproduce the experience of real shopping.

Friday, September 04, 2009

iPhones show the future of the web

I was surfing on my iPhone in bed last week. It seems I’m not the only one; although iPhones have only 13% of the smartphone market (as of the end of July 2009), a far higher proportion of web visits from mobiles are from iPhones (this study claims 67%). iPhone users surf far more often and for far longer than users of rival smartphones. Why? Because it is fun. My first smartphone used Windows Mobile and after a few months I stopped using it to surf unless it was an emergency. It was just too painful and frustrating. The iPhone, in contrast, is easy and fun to use and makes surfing rewarding. Make something usable and people will use it. Astonishing.

The speed from pocket to site is also a factor in the joy of iPhone surfing. Moments after you wonder “what’s the going rate for a George III mahogany chair” the answer comes up on your iPhone screen via the mobile version of eBay. Having the web in your pocket embedded on a device that knows where you are enables far more than simple fact checking; there are already iPhone ‘apps’ (software programs) that help shoppers find local merchants, compare prices, read reviews and more.

This kind of surfing shows where the web is going, and ecommerce merchants are well placed to take advantage of this trend: they already have a digital order processing system, a database of product details and a home shopping friendly customer base. All merchants should be looking – right now – at these three steps:

1) Adding customer reviews.
In a world where all shoppers, whether in a store or online, can compare merchants and prices easily and within seconds, good reviews from customers will become one the key differentiating factors between successful merchants and also-rans.

2) Creating a mobile version.
Reskinning an ecommerce website to fit a small screen should be straightforward, requiring little more than a revised layout.

3) Building an app.
The very well received ‘Ocado on the Go’ does what it says on the tin and helps make Ocado’s customers’ lives easier.

The most important task? If you haven’t got one, borrow an iPhone and hold the future in your hand.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Face it, I’m just not THAT into you

I was emailed an invitation by Mothercare to complete a survey last week. “This simple survey will only take about 10 minutes to complete” it said. I thought it might be interesting so I clicked on the link and set to work.

It started off easily enough, but three pages/questions in I noticed that the progress bar was barely shifting after each question and I began to wonder what I had let myself in for. The third question asked me to tick which of about a dozen baby and child web sites I visit ‘regularly’ and then which I’d bought from; not so hard, though I’ve no idea whether ‘regularly’ means weekly, monthly or what.

Then came the first of several essentially impossible questions; ‘And which website have you bought MOST from in the past 12 months?’. How the **** am I supposed to know? I have a baby. Do they think that I have the time to create a spreadsheet with all my purchases coded by merchant and product category so that I can run a report to identify where I’m spending the most? A few more easy questions, and then: “Roughly how much do you spend on kids and baby products each month both online and in total?’ Few people – when faced with a question like this – could do more than make a wild guess. At this point the progress bar was scarcely more than a quarter of the way to 100% and if I weren’t professionally involved with ecommerce then I would have bailed out. Three or four questions later and my patience had run out, with the progress bar still stubbornly below the halfway mark. I just couldn’t face trying to remember what the Mothercare site was like, and so wasn’t in a position to score it on 8 different factors.

I can’t believe that this survey will yield any useful results. It is not credible to imagine that a significant percentage of customers will make it all the way through to the end. Those that do make it will surely represent a skewed sample, and most will have guessed many of the responses.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Mothercare and I dread to think how much money they make from the Meath Baker household. But I don’t love them enough to get brain ache trying to answer questions for 10 minutes, not least when I don’t know the answers.

Why spend precious management time on a survey that will be reliable as a Met Office weather forecast? One of the beauties of online retail is that pretty much everything can be measured, and therefore tested. If you want to improve your website, don’t waste money on a survey; get some multi-variate testing software and test, test, test.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Report: online shoppers hunting more, paying less

A recent survey into US online shoppers has identified some interesting behaviours and attitudes, many of which are likely to be shared by UK consumers.

Three in particular drew my attention:

- Web surfers are spending more time hunting for bargains than they were six months ago.
- Many shoppers don’t seem to realise where they’re buying – 17% claim to have bought from a search engine and 7% from a comparison site.
- Free shipping is the feature most likely to influence buying, followed by product ratings or reviews.

The first finding shows the fragility of building a business based on gathering traffic from search engines and comparison shopping sites; many of the sales made via this route will be from consumers who won’t buy again. There is no point ‘buying customers’ if the result is one-time purchasers. Many home shopping experts only regard a prospect as being converted into a customer after the second purchase.

A multi-channel approach to prospecting and reactivation is vital. This means that the traditional key benchmark for mail order businesses – the size of the ‘house list’ (number of unique active customers) – is still the best indicator of a healthy home shopping company in 2009. To bring the concept up to date, just include email addresses as well as postal addresses.

The second finding shows the importance of effective branding across all the material seen by customers, from web site to packaging to order notification emails. A whopping 17% of those surveyed thought they had bought from a search engine, so some merchants must be failing dismally. If even your customers haven’t heard of you, then you have a branding problem.

The third finding shows that even if you don’t offer free shipping to all your customers then you should at least offer free shipping with conditions such as a threshold spend. And it would probably be sensible to run a test to see if free shipping gained more in profits on new sales than it lost in costs.

Anyone who wants to download the full survey can do so here