Web 2.0, Social Networking and Retail Websites

I was talking with a business owner the other day who seemed like they really got the concept of creating a consumer community rather than simply “fishing for customers.  They were doing events in their store aimed at educating their customers on their products, and have always taken a proactive customer service approach.  He mentioned they were redoing their website and said “I’ve got a student working on it.”  I bit my tongue and continued to talk with him.

So I’ve been thinking about retail websites, especially those with an affinity type brand, one of those the brands that customers naturally want to align themselves with.  Let’s assume that we’re a smaller business, no more than 5 0r 10 employees, so that we’re not able to devote a team of people to monitoring and maintaining our site.  What sort of features should we have on that site?

  • Best of Breed Homepage – clear navigation, clean design, rotating products or specials with an easy to understand value statement.
  • Intelligent Navigation – Be ultra-sure that visitors can find your products easily with a well thought out navigation scheme, as well as an easy to use search feature.
  • Your customers want to be part of the team – offer the ability to post product reviews, and allow reasoned, well expressed negative reviews as well.  Just because a product wasn’t right for one particular use, doesn’t mean it isn’t appropriate for another. Similarly, you will learn, and you will be better able to evolve your products.  You can treate negatives as a chance to turn around potentially negative customer experiences.
  • User Community and Support forums – lighten your load by developing a community and support forum (note it’s not just ‘support’).  This allows members of your community at large to share expertise, and often to solve their problems without your involvement.
  • Share your knowledgehave your experts blog.  In a community setting, it will help to further cement your position as the expert in your field.  If you’ve got multiple experts, and multiple knowledge areas, do multiple blogs to provide the “must have” resource for the community.
  • Team your web community building activities with your on-site activities –  Community building is community building, and often our online activities can help to make our bricks and mortar sites more destinations than simply outlets. 
  • Newsletters – provide information on a regular schedule for those that request it.  Newsletters often serve as reminders to the less engaged community member that they’re a valued part of your community.
  • Provide all the product page features you’d expect to see in any online store – email this page, print this page (that actually prints in a useable format).  Offer large view on pictures, video where applicable, and suggest other items.
  • Contact us information on every single page –  Never make your customer feel like he’s on his own.
  • Online ordering must be easy –  Don’t make them jump through hoops to place an order. A clear cut “step 1, step 2, step 3” process can work here.
  • Make it easy to track order status –  This is one that most sites seem to miss.  If I have an order, I should be able to look up what’s going on with my order (esp. if you have a several day lead time).   Email shipping notices with UPS routing numbers would also be key.

I know – you’re thinking there’s too much here for your average small store.  The truth is that customer expectations on the web have progressed.  We don’t expect, nor want, to simply see your inventory thrown online. If you do it right, you’re going to increase your business, both online and in your storefronts, and you’ll develop the sort of brand loyalty that we’d all envy.

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