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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
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To buy or not to buy?
To buy or not to buy?
Remote shopping, i.e. when the seller may have little or no face-to-face contact with the buyer – is growing across all areas from financial services to diamond rings! Two thirds of UK adults claim to have shopped by mail order (via post or telephone) at least once, while one in five has bought something on-line. However, new research, while it confirms huge growth potential in all forms of remote shopping – by mail, phone or via the Net – warns retailers that they may only get one chance to get it right! The research, which involved more than 1,500 in-depth interviews, shows a massive one in five remote shoppers are dropping out due to negative experiences – that is potentially around six million lost customers.
The research was commissioned by Reality Group, GUS' £400m business solutions outsourcing company, to identify the issues retailers, e-tailers and manufacturers must address if they are to realise the full potential of the remote shopping marketplace. Market leader, Reality, provides support for more than £3bn of remote shopping by UK consumers every year.
So why are a large proportion of the UK's shoppers not buying into the convenience of remote shopping? It seems remote sellers are simply failing to convince a time poor, more affluent population – which should be an easy target – that there is any reason at all why they should shop from home!
Around a quarter of those not currently shopping remotely could see "no expected benefit" to shopping in this way! This was particularly true of traditional home shopping – either from a catalogue or "off the page" – with three times as many respondents, across all demographic groups, dismissing this out of hand, as on-line shopping. So it seems as if the "old reasons" for remote shopping become less relevant because they can be obtained in other ways – easy credit, wide choice, low prices – the sector has failed to replace them with equally compelling new benefits.
But the research goes much further, highlighting a number of real barriers – both psychological and practical – to remote shopping. Some of these will gradually disappear over time as we move into a digital generation – with the emergence of interactive TV, potentially the most important influence, as it brings on-line access to a very high number of UK households. Others, however, are not so easy to overcome and apply to all channels, so need to be taken very seriously by everyone in the sector.
One of the biggest barriers crossing all remote shopping channels is, not unexpectedly, the "need to touch goods" cited by nearly a quarter of those not currently shopping remotely. The "touchy feely" factor, that is crucial in the purchase of clothes for example, is something all remote retailers must overcome and which is not only innately more difficult for those selling on-line, but is potentially the major limiting factor for expanding net sales.
Brands and retailers with a presence on the high street will always have the advantage here in that the quality/fit may be known and trusted. But enormous strides have been made to overcome this issue in other ways, whether by the provision of fabric swatches from catalogues, or on-line innovations such as fashion shows and programs whereby customers can scan in their 3D image and virtually try on clothes, accessories and make-up.
More central, however, is an easy and efficient returns policy. The ability to return goods at no cost and with no risk is key, particularly to encouraging sales of clothes, i.e. enabling people to use their home as the "fitting room". But while remote shoppers are in the main happy with the returns process – 26m of which are handled by Reality every year, largely in home shopping – many home shoppers are likely to opt for a replacement or alternative, but three-quarters of on-line shoppers instead opt for a refund. This indicates that if you get it wrong on-line the sale is very likely to be lost altogether.
But however good the digital effects or returns service, nonetheless there remains a significant psychological barrier to overcome. Although stress is one of the well-known drawbacks of high street shopping, the main benefit is being able to "interact with what you are considering buying". It may be that remote sellers will never be able to completely replicate the "emotive" sides of the shopping experience but a lot could be done to make the remote shopping experience more sensory. Style and ease of use of the catalogue or site are of course central, but sellers need to go even further. For example, music in the background while you make your choices on the Internet perhaps (a subliminal trick widely used in retail stores); more sensory descriptions of the goods; or the wider use in mail-order of fabric swatches and even "scratch and sniff" panels.
The "touchy-feely" barrier on-line is well illustrated in the types of non-grocery purchases made remotely. Of sales, 50 per cent via home shopping are in clothes – more easily presented in a catalogue form; whilst the research confirms that on-line shoppers are most likely to purchase home leisure items such as music, books, videos/DVDs, computer related items and toys, which buyers feel confident to purchase unseen.
Security – whether real or perceived – also remains a barrier primarily to on-line shoppers – with one in ten giving this as a reason not to use the channel. Reality, which processes for one client alone more than 1m Internet transactions every week, claims that there is much more that can be done to address the concerns of consumers, particularly over the security of their credit card transactions. The company is currently working with other parts of the GUS (The Great Universal Stores plc) group to develop unique new systems in this area, because 14 per cent of respondents with Internet access, but currently not shopping via this channel, said they would be more likely to shop on-line if credit card security was better – that's potentially 6.4m more customers!
The key reasons for shopping remotely were seen as "convenience" – cited by nearly half of all remote shoppers, followed by "ease" and "product availability". Of those questioned, 15 per cent had had a problem with product availability – rising to 28 per cent of telephone shoppers.
E-tailers should have a real advantage here as they can change their sites to reflect stock levels overnight, unlike catalogues which have a six month shelf life on average. But of course, having the technology to update the site doesn't always mean they are doing it!
Competitive prices were also a key attraction, particularly for Internet shoppers who firmly believe prices will be lower on the Net – although many in fact never actually purchase, they just surf to compare prices and then buy on the high street! Around one-third cited price as one of the key reasons why they do shop on-line however – vs only 6.5 per cent for home shopping. Over a quarter of on-line shoppers (particularly men) use the Net because they perceive it will be quicker – a criterion not so important to other remote channel shoppers – only one in six home shoppers state this as a key reason for their choice.
Catalogue shopping has the definite advantage over on-line when it comes to impulse purchase. Customers can easily browse through their catalogues, anytime, anywhere, and a significant 5 per cent of mail order shoppers claim they shopped on impulse because they "saw what they liked". Net users may surf for many hours, but there is a limit to how long they want to spend on any one site – and any browsing necessarily is always in front of the screen.
Reality, which has dedicated catalogue and Web development teams nation-wide and has been involved in the design of over 40 successful sites, says that on-line retailers need to develop their sites further to encourage surfers to stay engaged and to impulse purchase. Until women can access the Net from the comfort of their bubble bath as easily as they can flick through the pages of a catalogue, the company firmly believes that mail order will continue to beat on-line on impulse purchases hands down!
Negative media coverage of some aspects of remote shopping, problems with delivery for example, has hardened perceptions of non-shoppers, and yet actual experience often proves quite different. Those who are currently and regularly shopping remotely are in the main very satisfied with the overall experience, particularly on the logistics side – delivery and returns.
Remote shopping would seem to be delivering the goods – despite popular belief; 37 per cent of on-line shoppers claim delivery times are shorter than expected and the survey showed high levels of delivery satisfaction across all channels. Of on-line shoppers questioned, 80 per cent were extremely satisfied with delivery , as were only a slightly lower percentage of home shoppers.
Reality, which delivers over 100m parcels a year to UK homes via its Reality White Arrow service, says that there is still a real commercial need to communicate delivery efficiency and success to non-remote shoppers.
Despite the fact that one in five remote shoppers "drop out", loyalty amongst the ones who remain is surprisingly high. Home shoppers using the post – the heartland of remote shopping – tend to be more loyal than those who shop by other channels, with over a third saying they were "extremely likely" to use the same company time after time. Even on-line where it is so easy to "click off", 28 per cent of successful shoppers demonstrated a high degree of loyalty, stating that they were extremely likely to use the same site again.
The Reality research highlighted the importance of having a sales support number offered on all forms of remote shopping, but particularly on Web sites, a mere 50 per cent of which currently feature them. Of on-line shoppers, 84 per cent wanted this reassurance (despite only 13 per cent actually using it), with 100 per cent satisfaction from those who did use a helpline. This satisfaction was not just because the staff were helpful and polite, but most importantly because they made the callers feel valued as customers.
To realise fully the huge potential of remote shopping, companies must offer an exceptional customer experience. Expectations are high – perhaps even higher than they are in the high street – and shoppers' loyalty is very conditional.