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Online Retailers Have A Unique Window Of Opportunity

by Tim Rimington | January 10, 2012

Online retailers have a unique window of opportunity thanks, in part, to some traditional retailers taking their eye off the ball.

I hold the opinion that poor customer service and poor product knowledge is a key contributing factor in driving shoppers away from shopping malls and on to the Internet to buy their goods.

A Fairfax article this week spoke about poor retail sales performance in the lead up to the Holiday Season and during the post-new year sales. If you were like me and left your Holiday shopping to the last minute there’s a chance you were surprised by the lack of foot traffic that is such a traditional annoyance at that time of year. Okay, granted, the malls weren't "dead" but they weren't "heaving", either.

The Fairfax article went on to say that online sales via the Internet were healthy. As someone who speaks regularly with online retailers I can tell you, however, that not all is rosy in the online world either, but the online sales figures are apparently far more encouraging than those being touted by their brick and mortar counterparts.

Fairfax went on to say, “flat monthly retail figures reflected falling prices and discounting by retailers as they sought to lure consumers into ‘bricks and mortar’ shops”.

Frankly that demonstrates that retailers are blaming prices for their woes, believing that by discounting they’ll move more stock (and yes of course this is true to some extent but I believe that retailers need to look past prices and failing customer interest as being the only causes at fault here).

Which brings me to the next point I want to make from that article:

“Meanwhile, bricks and mortar retailers should concentrate on improving their customer service and knowledge of the products they sell”.

Hello! Retail store managers, are you listening? The cigar moment is right there: customer service and product knowledge. I hold the opinion that online sales are driven not only by price but by the lackluster customer service offered in this country by disinterested people working behind shop counters. Over the past few years I’ve grown increasingly frustrated by the lack of product knowledge and the lack of customer service by those people, and in my experience it's getting worse (the shop assistants aren't the only ones to blame here - their lack of training and overall supervision is probably the root cause).

So if customer service isn’t present in retail stores is it any wonder that Australians are flocking to the Internet to do their shopping? The ratty attitude of some “too cool for school” shop assistants is the reason I look online first before walking into a shop to part with my cash.

If retail store customer service was generally excellent, and the product knowledge that goes hand in hand with good service also of a high standard, then would we pay a little more and complete the purchase in-store? I think the answer is yes. I purchased a coffee machine at a local store here in Brisbane a few weeks ago and I probably could have found it cheaper online if I’d looked hard enough. But the fact that the sales woman was enthusiastic, knew the machine inside-out and genuinely appeared happy that I was standing in her store, was reason enough for me to hand over my credit card. But I can say without doubt that had that person fallen into the “too cool for school” category and exhibited a “couldn’t care less” attitude about the sale, then I would have walked out the door and made my purchase online, as often I do.

The cause of such bad retail service is another rant for another day (and I have strong views about that too), but there is opportunity for online retailers if they choose to take up the challenge. Review your company’s customer service protocols and make sure you provide awesome customer service, from the "add to cart" to "order and shipping confirmation" processes, backed by excellent product photos and information. And stay ahead of your competitors – if your website looks too “yesterday” with sloppy product presentation and minimalist information then you’ll slowly fall behind and possibly to a point where price discounting alone won’t be enough to save you – just ask some of the retailers in your local mall.



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