Guest Column | March 23, 2020

Online Shops Enable A Fuller Picture Of The Product

By Benjamin Wall

ecommerce boxes packaging

Conventional wisdom says the customer gains a more meaningful impression of products in a physical shop rather than online. However, the internet offers great potential for wide-ranging information from different stakeholders, smartly packaged by the digital retailer using multimedia, drill-down and linked information. An online shop can communicate a fuller picture of the benefits for customers and satisfy their growing interest to understand the impacts of the product on business, society and the environment.

For decades marketing has told us that products are sold by means of the customer benefits and not the product features. Glancing through many websites, particularly for tech products, one sees that there is considerable room for improvement in this regard. Many digital retailers remain in the world of the product by reporting technical descriptions and characteristics. Rather, eCommerce companies can enter the world of the customer to describe benefits from consuming the product and how it improves their lifestyle. Furthermore, customers are increasingly interested to know more about the impact of the product on the workers who produced it as well as on the environment: the working conditions, the raw materials, the production process, the transport, etc. The eCommerce company can mobilize different stakeholders, such as its own personnel, customers, suppliers and certification authorities, to contribute the required information. The digital company can then apply its retail expertise to present the information in a handy, appealing and informative manner. Higher sales, improved relations with the stakeholders and a better corporate image will follow.

What can digital retailers do to give a fuller picture of their products? The many answers sketched below are organized around the source of the information.

First of all, there is the visual presentation of the product by the retailer itself. The retailer can set the product in the context of the customer and make a tv or kitchen gadget with a cool design even cooler by presenting it in the setting of different living rooms or kitchens. Customers can better envision how the product would look in their own homes. A short video showing a consumer interacting with the product stimulates the customer to imagine using the product, thereby beginning to form a personal relation to the product. Alternatively, a video with a salesperson from the retailer explaining the product benefits can have a similar effect.

Second, the product descriptions from the retailer can highlight information about consuming the product, rather than detailing the technical features. The product description can explain to customers what it is like to consume the product in the terms of their private life. There are many possibilities to make customers think about the benefits of the product, such as providing answers to questions:

  • How does it feel to consume the product?
  • How does it enrich daily life/the lifestyle?
  • How does it enrich the shared life with others in the household?
  • How does it fit to other products in the household?
  • What new activities for the customer are made possible?
  • What activities can be performed faster, easier, with better quality, etc.?

The technical features themselves can be gathered into a technical document accompanying the product.

Product reviewers are currently a key source of information for retailers. Consumer surveys show that customers are much more willing to trust customer reviews than product descriptions from the retailer. However, looking through reviews online reveals that the information reported is generally rather sparse. Motivating customers to write reviews that make products come alive can be a key differentiator for a retailer. What motivates reviewers? Simply said, reviewers are motivated by a desire to help their fellow consumers in making the right purchase decision and in being part of a community. They want to contribute to the community, where the group feeling extends to other consumers, other reviewers, and even the retailer.

It is easy to imagine that many reviewers want to help others but are not sure how. What should a reviewer write? What are other consumers interested in knowing? What does the reviewer know to share with others, which the retailer does not know, i.e. how can the reviewer add value to the product presentation on the website? The retailer can help the reviewer write more helpful reviews by providing tips, guidelines and even good examples of effective reviews. Even more, the retailer can suggest that the reviewer gives a personal answer to one or more of the questions listed above, and/or any of the following personal questions which the retailer cannot answer:

  • Describe the moment or circumstances when the product truly shines, i.e. has the most positive impact, and what that impact is
  • Tell a personal story where using the product plays a key role
  • Compare the product to the products owned by friends (without naming brands)
  • Weaknesses, problems or disadvantages of the product.

Another possible contribution from product reviewers is for them to photograph the product in its setting in their home and upload the photo. The photo can accompany their review and/or become part of the photo gallery for the product. This is valuable non-verbal information that does not require a command of the written language. Furthermore, it enables reviewers to set themselves in a good light, by showing how tastefully or creatively they can integrate the product into their home interior. Better than Instagram!

To motivate these kinds of contributions from product reviewers the retailer can invite them to feel part of a greater community. Examples of how to do this include giving them their page to profile themselves and their reviews, establishing forums where they can exchange views and answer questions amongst themselves, and even possibly in a closed circle comment on each other’s reviews. Such initiatives show that the retailer appreciates the reviewers. Additionally, there could be recognition rewards or discount coupons for the “best” reviews or the most active reviewers. To stimulate reviews, retailers could send a mail to customers four weeks after the purchase to ask their opinion of the product. Customers could be offered the option to give direct feedback to the retailer or write a review. The mail could describe suitable content for a review, the community of reviewers, the awards, etc.

The suppliers who produce the products also can participate in giving a fuller picture of products online – which of course is in their interest! It can be that some producers know more about the benefits of consuming their products than the retailer. In this case, the retailer can invite the supplier to contribute content that speaks to the customer, assuming that the working relationship between retailer and supplier can accommodate this kind of information sharing. The shared content could be texts or images on the retailer’s website or a link to the page on the supplier’s website which presents the product in an illuminating manner. Suppliers should be motivated out of their interest to contribute the best content possible, but additional motivation can never hurt. Just as manufacturers award prizes to their suppliers for the quality of the working relationship, retailers could reward their suppliers for the quality of the content. Suppliers are happy to use such awards as a reference when promoting their corporate image.

Sustainability is a topic that increasingly occupies the thoughts of the customers regarding their purchases and consumption behavior. Online retailers can deliver transparency about products in the form of linked information. One aspect is information about the life cycle assessment of a product: its complete environmental impact from cradle to grave. There are multiple ways to gain such information, e.g. in a trade association establishing norms, from certification authorities who audit suppliers or from the supplier itself. The different sources have their pros and cons which need to be evaluated. For many products, the retailer will have to settle for a less complete picture of the ecological impact, e.g. simply the efficiency of the electricity consumption, or which, if any, of the raw materials are recycled. Retailers can work with suppliers and authorities to improve the quality of information available. Along with “planet” a further issue is “people”: what are the working conditions for the person producing the products? Online retailers can post on their website a list of all the facilities which produce the products. More useful for the customer is specific information about a given factory or factories producing a given product and an indication of the working conditions there. In this regard, there are again certification authorities who can be the source of the relevant information.

The launch of these kinds of innovations requires considerable resources and thus needs to be introduced step-by-step. eCommerce companies can select the products to begin giving a fuller picture by choosing the products with the best balance of higher benefits and lower costs. Benefits can be based on e.g. high sales volume, high quantity of accessories or complementary products, high sustainable impact and good relations with suppliers. Costs are improved based on e.g. low amounts of required resources, quick time frame or easy feasibility to implement the fuller picture.  Reactions to the fuller pictures of the products can be gathered from beta testers, focus groups, or the “live test” of introducing the change on the shop and observing the market response.

In sum, customers are interested to know what they will be getting when they decide on a product and are becoming more concerned about the impact of their purchases on the planet and people. Ecommerce retailers can handle the massive amounts of the required information in a prioritized manner to give customers the transparency they want. When shopping online, customers can include in their considerations the impact their purchases will have, not only on themselves and their lifestyle but also on businesses, society, and the environment.