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Northside Innovation Festival: Lessons for online retailers on trust

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By Megan Anderle, Editor and Contributing Writer

The clichéd sales phrase “The customer is always right” is more relevant than ever in a world of big data, personalization and optimized customer service, which the most enterprising online retailers are leveraging to build customer loyalty and increase sales.

These pioneers know that there’s a fine line between serving customers in a relevant way and overstepping with annoying advertising. They’ve also found a way to bridge the gap between brick-and-mortar and online shopping.

“Use every piece of data to the customer’s benefit, but only target them when it’s relevant,” Alan Tisch, founder and CEO of the online marketplace Spring, said at a panel at the Northside Innovation Festival in Brooklyn, New York, on June 12. “Don’t send users push notifications when they’re walking down a street past a store – that’s not relevant – send them a push notification for the same product they’ve viewed online that’s sitting in the store they walk by.”

Established luxury brands are “in the scariest place they’ve been in 20 years,” with retail becoming increasingly competitive, he said at the weeklong annual event that encompasses technology, music, film and art.

But adding value to customers’ lives, with useful information that isn’t necessarily tied to sales, in-store and online, could be game changing for struggling brands.

Gaining customer trust

There’s only one way to stand out in the retail rat race: prove that the company can be trusted, the panelists argued.

Honesty about profit margins and transparency about manufacturing practices can go a long way, as customers increasingly patronize ethical companies. A 2014 study showed that the majority of customers are willing to pay more for products and services provided by companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact.

Aside from being transparent about the business, retailers can stand out by giving customers valuable content online and providing them with an unforgettable customer experience that isn’t overly promotional and makes customers feel as if they’re not being pushed to open their wallets, the panelists said.

“You go to a store not just to shop, but to experience something new, and REI does this well,” said Marc Maleh, managing director at R/GA, an advertising agency. “If I was on the website two weeks ago, looking at camping gear, an employee will approach me to teach me about camping.”

For Nineteenth Amendment, an online marketplace for consumers to buy products from a handpicked group of emerging designers, that education comes in the form of stories about the designers and articles about the latest trends. The Boston-based startup has also hosted events where customers can meet designers in person, but there’s no products for customers to purchase.

“We don’t hold inventory, so you can’t walk away with the product, but the purpose is to start a conversation and engage them and then continue that conversation online where they can purchase,” said Amanda Curtis, co-founder and CEO of Nineteenth Amendment.

What makes brands stand out online

Erica Cerulo, a co-founder of the e-commerce startup One of a Kind, said the most successful brands have a strong point of view; that’s what builds customer loyalty, not the same generic message that every brand is conveying.

“Yes, you might alienate some customers, but it gives you the opportunity to connect with people in a real way,” she said.

Tisch agreed. “If you’re going to stand out from the crowd, you need to have something different about you,” he said. “Today customers want to browse a lot of content but know that it’s you; without even seeing the logo, when they see the content they can tell that it’s Burberry or Nike.”

And while innovation is important, retailers shouldn’t reinvent the wheel online.

“Innovate in a way that improves the experience that customers are comfortable with – you don’t have to innovate in every aspect of the business.”

A streamlined customer checkout process, where users can easily check out online or through their smart phones, is one place to start. Offering free 30-day returns, live chat with a customer experience representative is another way. Above all, though, an easily navigable mobile experience that gives users just enough features, is king, Tisch said.

“Mobile should take ruthless prioritization,” he said. “You have limited real estate to give the shopper exactly what they need, and you need to eliminate things that aren’t necessary.”

He advised, “Start by designing an experience you think is right and then strip it down after you ask users what’s most beneficial to them.”

Taking user’s feedback into account in this way is crucial, according to Matt Thier, co-founder of the crowdfunding platform Betabrand.

“You’re doing a disservice to your customer if you’re not reaching out to them and saying, ‘how can we make this a better product?’” he said. “It creates a more open, collaborative company that customers can trust and want to confide in. Plus, it’s amazing the ideas they come up with that we never spend a second thinking about.”

Ultimately, customers need to be considered every step of the way. Companies need to have meaningful conversations with customers, whether it’s about the business practices, product or simply offering useful information.

“Brands can no longer just put products online,” said Ana Andjelic, a digital strategist at the advertising agency Droga5. “They have to reimagine digital shopping experience by expressing their story in a way that’s engaging.”

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