Retail Online That Reflects Customer Values

Shopping online achieved its state of the art through the likes of Amazon and, later, Zappos. Both defined the experience of “etailing” through clean interfaces, one-click purchasing, customer reviews and ratings, fast and often free shipping, and easy returns.  Zappos even managed to bring world-class customer service to the experience.

Still, shopping online has lacked that essential human interaction that defines shopping in the real world – especially the fun that comes with shopping with friends or interacting with a shopkeeper who really knows their stuff.  There are a number of new etailers who are striving to raise the state of the art to new and differentiated levels, creating shopping experiences that more closely mimic that which you find offline in the bricks-and-mortar world and seek to align with the values their target markets hold dear.

Warby Parker is a prime example of a company that is doing things differently. The eye glass designer and purveyor is on the verge of turning the lucrative industry on its head by offering hip, cool frames with prescription lenses for just $99, including shipping. If you buy a pair of glasses, they give a pair to someone in need.  For the buyer, they provide an online shopping experience that includes a tool that enables you to upload a photo of yourself so you can see the frames you’re considering on your own face. You can then share that photo with someone via email, say, or even with your Facebook friends so they can weigh in and let you know what they think.  It’s pretty cool. When that’s not enough, they’ll ship you up to five pairs for you to try on at home for five days for free. Of course, return shipping is also free. Once you’ve decided on frames you like, you simply give them your prescription, and they send you your new glasses, all for just $99.

They’re like Tom’s Shoes, which popularized the buy one / give one idea online and which recently introduced its own line of eyewear. It’s a form of cause marketing that has particular resonance with the younger demographic that is popularizing both online shopping destinations.

There’re also shifts in the basic business model of retailing, where the act of selling is secondary to a bigger idea.

An example is a new site with promise called EVINE, which is actually aimed at an older demographic and which just emerged from stealth mode. The new site is taking on the world of TV shopping (think QVC or HSN in their glory days).  In fact, Mark Bozek, who is the co-founder of EVINE, is a former HSN CEO. (Full disclosure: I did some consulting work with Mark.) In the same way that HSN and QVC offer one-of-kind merchandise for a limited time, which is promoted by on-air personalities with the product manufacturers as guests, EVINE will offer both live, streaming webcasts as well as traditional video embeds to highlight unique products that are both designed and made in the U.S.A., something the target market highly values. EVINE is seeking input from their audiences to help them discover new products that their audience thinks should be brought to market. A recent TechCrunch post summed it up nicely:

EVINE aims to offer value-driven merchandise in fashion, beauty, accessories, fitness, and food, for women over the age of 35 through a platform that offers a variety of shopping-centric entertainment.  The goal is to not just give women a platform where they can shop, but where they can interact and share content and merchandise with friends. 

It’s also a place where American product designers and small business entrepreneurs with a small but loyal audience can be promoted to a much larger audience. It’s the ultimate in brand ambassadorship and a new spin on patriotism.

Another example is a new start-up called Zamzee.  They target American families struggling with weight issues, and to do that Zamzee sells a meter that you wear so it can track all your physical activity throughout the day. Once a day, users plug their meters into their computer’s USB port to upload their activity data to the Zamzee site so families can track progress against stated goals. There are leaderboards and other forms of “gamification” that incent a more active lifestyle among users. Zamzee also provides parents with the opportunity to motivate physical activity by purchasing goals for their kids. As a child earns points, they progress towards their goal. Once they surpass their goals, kids can use accumulated points to purchase rewards from the Zamzee shop, which is the site’s secondary retail experience.  It’s a great cause at its core with etailing all around the edges, and it leverages both social and gaming experiences to motivate the desired behaviors both online and off.

In all of these instances, you have online retailers that are taking established modes of selling and turning them on their heads by embracing social features, advancing the values their customers hold dear, and putting the customer’s natural (or desired) behaviors at the center of the experience. 

Author DEREK GORDON is a marketing and sales exec with more than 20 years success in integrated marketing and sales strategy and management. He is the Chief Marketing and Sales Officer for Pathbrite. You can also check out his blog, Daily Casserole.

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