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The Seven Deadly Sins of the Fashion Web

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The Seven Deadly Sins of the Fashion Web

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I spend a good part of every day keeping up on fashion trends: whether it's through reading articles and trend pieces in online publications or sifting through online retailers and design showcase sites. I do this mostly because of the nature of my startup, but I am also personally interested, an avid shopper and passionate about fashion. And you'd think because of all of the advances in fashion:tech over the past few years that this experience would have gotten better and better. Right? Well, it hasn't. It's gotten steadily worse.

And perhaps it's mostly infuriating because I am working on the issue of customer-centric experiences, but I've heard the same complaints from others when I belly-ache openly about my frustrations.

Today I came across a post on Chris Dixon's blog where he publishes an internal memo from the founder of fast-growing entertainment news site BuzzFeed, explaining why they are doing so well and how it is a sustainable growth and a lightbulb went off for me: people love Buzzfeed because they put their readers first. Pretty simple. And so I started thinking about all of the ways publishers and retailers do the opposite and how I wish they thought more like Buzzfeed. Then I realized that I need to put this into a post so they could all learn from it.

So, written from a customer's perspective and, perhaps, clouded a bit by working with your sites data structures over the past few years, here are THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS OF THE FASHION WEB.

SIN #1 - CAROUSELS/SLIDESHOWS

From the BuzzFeed memo:

(W)e don’t publish slideshows. Instead we publish scrollable lists so readers don’t have to click a million times and can easily scroll through a post. The primary reason to publish slideshows, as far as I can tell, is to juice page views and banner ad impressions.  Slideshows are super annoying and lists are awesome so we do lists!

Oh god yes. Stop it. They may look prettier, increase your page views and give you the incredibly annoying opportunity to insert random advertising (that I skip anyway), but they are a ROYAL pain in the ass as a reader. And trying to PIN or otherwise bookmark a look? Hell. Some of you even try to make it easier for me by putting a 'pin it' on every page. Doesn't help a bit. And whatever, I just close the article that is hung up in my browser before I get to anything I want to save anyway.

SIN #2 - FLASH STUFF

For a while, I wondered why my entire browser kept seizing up, then I turned off flash and I realized how much of it you use and how much better my experience got. From your ads to your menus to your embedded lookbook stuff to random ways to track my journey through your site, you are choking the hell out of my browsing experience.

Hint: there are TABS on most browsers and most people are using them. When you test your site, test it with at least 10 tabs open and several tabs should be persistent: email, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and a calendar application. These are all dynamic applications that really shouldn't be running in our browsers persistently either, but they do because they are our lifeline. You are not. Remove anything that slows the loading of your content down and you'll have less bounces. I promise.

SIN #3 - PRODUCT VIDEOS

I know, I know. Someone sold you this idea for a LOT of money and gave you stats on better conversion rates with product videos. And yes, I appreciate a good product video now and then, but it should NOT be default on every product page (see Flash stuff above). Here is how most customers shop: (a) we browse and click around furiously until something catches our attention, (b) when something catches our attention, we want more information and will seek it out at every angle - zoom, seeing it on a model, video, customer reviews, etc.

Don't put (b) before (a). It's just plain frustrating. I think the single biggest innovation in retail was the 'quick look' on products. I love that feature. Then when I'm hooked and I click through the product page, let me poke around quickly and choose a video. K?

SIN #4 - MAKING ME LOG IN TO CHECK OUT

Why on heaven's earth is there an extra log in step before I check out? Can't you get my information in one fell swoop? Send me a temporary password for goodness sake. You don't need all of that information. I'm giving you a credit card, my mailing address, my email address, my size...as a courtesy, would you please just let me check out?

SIN #5 - SPLASH PAGES

What year is this? 1999? I especially love it when a store has a FLASH SPLASH page! What? Add music and you are officially in Web 1.0.

SIN #6 - THE MISSING SEARCH BOX

I'm thinking that you removed the search box from your homepage because you didn't think it looked very pretty there? Or maybe you want me to get frustrated and leave. I know. You want me to get lost in your lovely site. Get over yourself. I'm there for ME. I'm looking for something for ME. Don't get in my way or I'll go elsewhere.

SIN #7 - B.S. SIZING

I wasn't born yesterday. I know that different designers and manufacturers size things differently. So supplying a site-wide sizing guide is NOT helpful. If you are going to provide sizing details, please provide it accurately. And, yes, it's a LOT of work, but it would go a long way to making your customers feel more secure about their order. I bet it would go further than those videos of the pencil thin models walking down a runway in the dress or pants.

And, pray-tell, what the hell does "Fits true to size" mean? To whose size?

SOME BONUS SINS

Unreal Models - Speaking of the models, I just can't relate. I know you want the clothes to look their best and you could never provide enough model body types to satisfy everyone, but it would probably help your customers to know the model is more average sizing. I recently had a situation where I ordered a pretty dress from Shoptiques that must have been modeled by a 5'0" woman because it fit me like a tunic. For a really great example of models, see ModCloth. They are also killing it with their sales.

Artsy Product Shots - That dress looks lovely behind that bush, but it's not getting me any closer to imagining it on my body. Lookbooks are nice, but they aren't super helpful when I'm shopping for something. I know how important branding and having an editorial point of view is...but don't get in the way of my shopping.

A 'Shop' Site That's Different Than Your Corporate/Showroom Site - I don't understand the logic behind this one. And you usually make me open your shop site in a different browser tab, which is a pain. You know, there is software that allows you to do both quite easily. And if you are an indie designer, Etsy allows you to embed your shop in your site, complete with checkout!  Unless you are only distributed through other retailers, I don't understand why you need two sites. I see this so often it makes me scratch my head.

Lack of a Story - One of the best ways to create loyalty and a following is to have a story - your designer/founder's story front and center on the site. Once again, Modcloth is the darling for this. I actually first fell in love with Susan's pug, then Susan. Her story made me want to shout them out from the rooftops.

Summarized RSS Feeds - This one is for publishers. Perhaps if you didn't crash my browser with all of your flash and plugins and community bars loading and stuff, I'd click through those summaries and read the story. But the combination of the two just makes me remove you from my feed reader.

Facebook Comments - I'm on the fence on this one, but I'm increasingly annoyed by them.

Driving Me to Your Facebook Fan Page - Why are you doing this when I'm already on your website?

Pin to Win - Stop it. It not only sounds stupid, but you are polluting my social networks. I've already written about this.

...

I'll stop there for now, but fellow customers, feel free to add anything else that annoys you about the Fashion Web experience. Also, I'm a big fan of simple sites like ASOS and smartly social sites like ModCloth. What are some of your favorite experiences and why?

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The Hierarchy of What We Buy (and where you want to be)

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The Hierarchy of What We Buy (and where you want to be)

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Most people will tell you that they only buy necessities and stuff that makes them a better person (books, travel, etc). In fact, this is only an observation, but the types of things people are happy sharing on their Facebook wall tend to be purchases that fit into the SELF-ENLIGHTENMENT box above. It's hard to admit that we often shop to feel better about ourselves and to feel accepted, but we do. Fundamentally, consumer culture feeds into our deepest desires to be recognized and loved. Logically, we all know that buying stuff won't get us real recognition or true love, but the fleeting shots of pseudo recognition and love we receive from being in first class or bonding over having the same Celine bag (we both know we paid $1800 for it even though we don't explicitly say it), etc is often enough to get us through our days.

Don't get me wrong. I do it myself (there is nothing better than feeling treated like a human being while traveling and it really only happens in first class). I'm not making mockery of it. I'm merely calling a spade a spade. We aren't going to change this in our lifetime and I suspect it is deeply rooted in human nature. And as a marketer and an entrepreneur, understanding people's motivations around what they pay for and what they don't is a brilliant insight to have.

So if you are about to embark on creating a product to sell to North American men and/or women, take heed. You want to appear in the upper two or three categories above or else you are going to be struggling for a very long time.

The hierarchy of what people will pay for is as follows:

  1. Status - "I buy to feel better about myself."
  2. Convenience - "I buy to save time."
  3. Self-Enlightenment - "I buy to become a better person."
  4. Necessity - "I buy because I need to."
  5. Obligation - "I buy because I have to."

The hierarchy cuts across income lines, cultures, gender, sexuality and education levels. It is most hyperbolized in the Western world, but exists on some level in every culture around the world. Religions, laws and social pressure have always tried to circumvent it and correct it (do not covet, buddhist minimalism, etc) because left unchecked, this hierarchy can be very unhealthy. And as evidenced in rampant consumerist cultures like America, the desire to curb these tendencies may not be such a bad thing after all. [See: The Story of Stuff]

However, once again, this isn't a post about changing our consumer ways. It's a post about human behavior and rethinking how an entrepreneur would reframe a product in order to make it more desirable to purchase. First, I'll break down the hierarchy a little more so that you understand each category and what products do a good job of communicating their roles. Overall, what I hope you get from this article is the ability to move from the lowest priority on the human desire to buy scale to the highest.

STATUS

Is business class really worth that much more than economy class? Absolutely. You are paying for more than a better meal and more legroom. You are paying for a higher place in the pecking order. Why do you think they let you board the airplane first? Why do you think they march all of the poor saps from economy past you once you have settled with your prosecco and duvet? Because that's the best damned part.

Paying for STATUS comes in many forms, but what it is communicating more than anything is that the buyer has differentiated him or herself as superior to the unwashed masses. I think the best parable I've ever read is the Dr. Seuss story, "The Sneeches":

Now, the Star-Bell Sneetches had bellies with stars.  The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars. Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small.  You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.

But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.” With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort “We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!”

As the story progresses, the Plain-Belly Sneeches get the opportunity to gain status by having stars put on their bellies -which fits into the next category, ACCESS- but the Star-Belly Sneeches decide that the new kind of status will come from being Plain-Bellied. And so it goes, both sets of Sneeches spend their entire fortune on an insignificant symbol to try and gain status over one another until all of their money is gone and they are left to come to realize that Star-Belly or Plain-Belly, they are really no different.

Dr. Seuss was incredibly wise, but our version of having a Star-Belly comes in many forms and, in a dog-eat-dog world, it's incredibly difficult to ignore. From the red sole of the Louboutin shoes to a Birkin Bag with its distinct shape to buying the Lexus instead of a Honda SUV and beyond, we are constantly flaunting our Star-Bellies to others as if to say, "We're the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches." And the awful truth of it all is that, because we are busy and need to make decisions quickly, we will see those shoes, that bag, that car and that first class ticket and make a quick decision about the owner. Don't lie. You've done it.

If not for shoes, for something else. And if your values see designer bags as low status, you have your own symbols. Though STATUS usually corresponds with luxury and expensive, it doesn't always have to be that way. You just have to signal to others that the user of your product is smarter, sexier, handsomer, more beautiful, richer or otherwise better than them in a not so subtle way.

Which is why buying for STATUS isn't such a silly, frivolous thing after all. And if you were smart, your product would be positioned as a STATUS purchase.

CONVENIENCE

CONVENIENCE is the big, dirty secret behind iTunes. There are dozens of ways in which we can download music for free, but iTunes has changed that behavior for many. It's not just guilt, either. It's that they put it right there in front of us so that with a quick click of a button, we have any artist's latest album loaded on all of our devices. It's really brilliant.

And the networks are starting to catch onto this, too. The season premiere of Breaking Bad was Sunday night and we don't have cable in our household, but less than 24 hours later, we were able to watch it on iTunes. $2.99? Sure. We even bought the season's pass so we would know the instance it was available. Could have we downloaded it for free? Absolutely. But it's more convenient to do it this way.

We also pay for CONVENIENCE when we want to jump a line or skip having to watch ads. In gaming, people pay for the ability to skip levels and get more powers to catch up with other players. LinkedIN relies on convenience for their upsell. I can contact people quicker with a pro account. Their details are right there and I can usually google an email address to connect, but if I upgrade, I can save time.

CONVENIENCE allows us to save time, skip lines, avoid annoyances and just have a more seamless experience overall. You can't charge near as much for CONVENIENCE as you can for STATUS, but you can still charge and people will pay for it readily.

It's no secret that during my startup bootstrapping, I took many a Greyhound bus between Montreal and New York. That was über inconvenient, but cheap (see NECESSITY below). My little treat to myself was to buy the 'jump the line' pass. For an extra $15 (the ticket was only $65 return) on each side, I got to board the bus first and not wait in line. Keep in mind that every seat on the bus is equally cramped and there are no 'classes'. But I paid a premium in comparison to the ticket price in order to just board the bus ahead of everyone else. For me it wasn't about STATUS at all. It was about CONVENIENCE. I could arrive at the bus station 5 minutes before the bus left and sit down right away. Totally worth it.

But add STATUS to your CONVENIENCE? You have gold.

SELF-ENLIGHTENMENT

The cruel joke behind this one is that the truly self-enlightened don't have to buy anything at all, so often what people often mistake for SELF-ENLIGHTENED spending is actually STATUS spending. Think books, travel, further education, gym memberships, etc. These are all expenditures towards making us better human beings: smarter, better traveled, more fit and more spiritual. But what we choose to read, where we travel, which school we take classes at and what gym membership we buy splits the difference between SELF-ENLIGHTENMENT and STATUS.

Years ago while working a pretty decent job in Toronto, Canada, I joined a gym that cost me $120/month because I knew the cool kids from the ad world worked out there. I had at least 3 gyms in a 5 block radius that cost around $20/month that I could have chosen, but I went for the further, more expensive option. I justified it with the free towel service, but free towel service doesn't cost $100/month. What the extra expense gave me was access -part of STATUS- and an added incentive to go more often to get my money's worth.

But a personal story doesn't make for a generalized statement. There are no studies I could find that spending more money on a gym resulted in higher commitment to getting in shape. Most gyms have the same equipment and similar classes and those $20/month gyms (I'm part of one now) usually gives you access to their entire chain of gyms with classes.

Lots of companies position their products in the realm of SELF-ENLIGHTENMENT, but those who position themselves as SELF-ENLIGHTENMENT with STATUS will do much better. You will get a lot of press for selling something in this category. People will congratulate you and celebrate you, but you probably won't sell much.

One of my favorite new companies is Warby Parker, the online glasses retailer. Glasses could actually be a NECESSITY, but in their case, they move them up a wrung on the hierarchy to SELF-ENLIGHTENMENT by making them one of those Buy-One-Give-One type companies. But even Warby Parker realized that this wasn't ambitious enough of a climb. So they positioned themselves as a fashion company and I've heard them repeat that they are a fashion company first over and over. Why? Because they are learning from the limitations of Tom's Shoes, who got lots of press and love, but their sales stalled at some point. People bought a pair or two when they came out and felt great for doing it, but the next time they went and bought shoes? They went for the STATUS pair. By being a fashion eyewear company, they position themselves with their customers to be the place where they'll go time and time again to buy fashionable, hot glasses that will get all of the right attention. Smart.

NECESSITY

This is a pretty solid, yet unsexy category. It includes stuff like rent, toilet paper, toothpaste, gas and the other stuff we need to survive. Lots of people will tell you to build a company or a product that fits into this category. Those people have no clue. Yes, while creating something that people need will generate sales and a steady income, it also puts you in the category of being a commodity. Nobody is excited about buying the necessities. And, if someone comes along and produces that necessity cheaper, you are screwed.

Wal-mart talks about their own hierarchy of customer buying decisions: function, reliability, convenience and price. Does it solve what I need to have solved? Yep. Does it do it reliably? Uh-huh. Can I buy it now? Yes. Is it a good price? Yup. Good. Done. A customer will take all of the options in this category and line them up against one another and, quite often, suffer some sort of paradox of choice before they buy. Unless the product they buy is heads and hands above the competition, there will be very little loyalty in this category. The next time she or he goes to buy a refill, the comparison will be made once again.

It sucks to be in this category, but there IS a way out of it. It's about jumping up the hierarchy and moving from NECESSITY all the way to STATUS if you can. Don't compete on the Wal-mart customer buying hierarchy when you can blow all of the competition away and make a category of your own. Luxury toothpaste?

One of my favorite examples of this in my own kitchen is Olive Oil. I use it in much of my cooking and it comes in a variety of prices and levels of virgin-ness. However, because I display my olive oil and consider myself to be a foodie, I buy the high end brands. Does it taste better? Sure. Nominally. But in most cases, it doesn't make that much of a difference because of how I cook with it. But I'll pay for the fancy olive oil because I get comments.

In the song, "If I Had a Million Dollars" by the Bare Naked Ladies, they allude to buying fancier condiments with their new wealth:

If I had a million dollars We wouldn’t have to eat Kraft dinner But we would eat Kraft dinner Of course we would, we’d just eat more And buy really expensive ketchups with it That’s right, all the fanciest Dijon ketchups

Whether you are poor or wealthy, certain foods still taste great, but being wealthy affords you the ability to buy that pricy ketchup. That's a luxury. That is taking the necessity and turning into a symbol of STATUS.

OBLIGATION

Oh OBLIGATION, you poor category, you. Donations fall into this category. So do gifts. The worst part of this category is that most non-profits struggle to get out of it. Between skinny, dying babies with flies on them to photos of abandoned dogs and beyond, these campaigns are meant to tug at our heartstrings so that we feel the urge to give money. And we do, but begrudgingly, and when it comes time to give again? We avoid the people with the clipboards on the street asking, "Do you have time for the environment?" Yes, I always have time for the environment, but I don't have time to stop and commit to donating money to it.

Guilt is not a good method of marketing. It's the worst. It makes people look away and pretend they don't see you. It does the EXACT opposite of STATUS: it makes us feel bad about ourselves. It reminds us that we could have taken the $600 we just spent on a pair of Louboutins we can hardly walk in and made a real difference in someone's life. Of course, we want to convince people to spend money on feeding children and cleaning our air -I agree that is more pressing than adding another pair of pumps to my collection- but doing it through guilt and OBLIGATION is not the right way to approach it.

Move the message up the hierarchy and win. AIDS research did this with aligning itself with fashion and parties and galas and all sorts of sexiness. Breast Cancer research does a pretty decent job with the pink ribbon everything, the runs, the community and the survival stories. If people getting involved in your cause and giving time and money helps them achieve SELF-ENLIGHTENMENT and gives them STATUS, you will achieve your goals and then some.

People want to be altruistic and they do care, but nobody wants to be a downer or feel bad or guilty or in the least bit OBLIGATED to contribute. Involve them in a way that makes them feel better, not worse.

CONCLUSION

At the end of the day, we all want to believe that we are more self-aware than those status-seeking, shallow, selfish types that spend too much on items that temporarily make them feel good. We vilify the Snookis of this world and point fingers laughing, saying, "So glad that's not me," but face it, we all have an element of that in our nature and that is why we find it funny in the first place.

Yes, we should consider to fight these urges as individuals and vote with our dollars to promote a better, more charitable, more community friendly world, but in the meantime, those who are building products that are doing that should learn from the masters that tapping into the STATUS-seeking human behavior is a darn good way to get your point across. You don't have to mark up your products to achieve it, either. You just need to convey to your potential customers that buying your product or giving money to your charity or being involved in your cause is going to make them feel great and look great to others.

Human nature is human nature. Let's use our knowledge of it for good.

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Becoming a Social Retailer

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Becoming a Social Retailer

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One of the biggest issues with the label “social” is that it often gets misconstrued as the use of social media. So when I hear about an ecommerce site using social, I can almost always bet they’ve done things like putting a ‘pin-it’ button on their product pages and are using Facebook connect on some level to enable their customers to share their purchases. There is no problem with this behavior, of course. It’s par for the course of today’s web. But it is NOT being social.

The general definition of social is the gathering of people for mutual pleasure and benefit, which also translates to how it manifests online. Therefore, marketing activities that push the interests of a company doesn’t fall under the definition of social. There has to be mutual benefit. While the company benefits by selling a product, the customer should benefit as well.

A simple way to think of becoming a social retailer is to ask the following question as part of your overall strategy:

“What is that thing we can do to help make our customers’ lives simpler, less confusing, less alienating, more efficient, more meaningful and just plain better?”

By incorporating this into the core of your strategy, the mutual benefit manifests and the interaction is now social.

However, many companies engage in what I deem is incredibly anti-social strategy, some examples being:

  1. A recent email from a retailer I’m deeply engaged with on a buying and loving level that requested I go to their Facebook page and ‘like’ them.
  2. Asking me to spam my friends and followers for the promise of something free.

I receive and enjoy many emails from my favorite retailers. If done right, they get me to open the email, then click through to their website quite frequently. New products, sales, tutorials and interesting content in general are just some of the things that entice me. But when I received an email from one of my favorite retailers asking me to click on a link to ‘like’ them on Facebook when I’m already a card-carrying, email clicking frequent shopper, I had to unsubscribe.

In my view, this retailer was wasting a perfectly good open of an email to request a pointless behavior. They already have my email address, my purchase history and many other points of information (I have accumulated so many points on my loyalty card at this retailer that I raise eyebrows when I cash out). Why drive me to a Facebook page?

The second example is highly anti-social because it actually works...until it doesn’t. When a retailer asks people to promote an item on a social network in order to win something, many people tend to participate, which ruins everyone else’s experience of that social network. The more it works, the more case studies are shared and the more social network marketing pollution we experience.

Just check out the search results on Pinterest for ‘brown leather tote’:

I like this tote. I may have even pinned it naturally at some point, but now a perfectly cute tote is forever etched in my mind as spam. And the people who are filling up their friends’ feeds with this tote? They are irritating their friends, too, which is not good for their own reputation. This is the ultimate in anti-social. Not only is this retailer using a social tool to get someone else to do their marketing, but they are also creating distrust between their fans and their followers. Can I trust someone’s recommendations going forward if I know they ‘pin to win’?

This practice is a great example of a Tragedy of the Commons: a scenario in which individuals acting out of self interest deplete the value of a shared interest. In this case, the search results are less helpful because there are pages of the same bag to scroll through.

These are only two of the many examples of how retailers act anti-social through the use of social media tools in order to satisfy their own interests, but not necessarily their customers. But then, how can a retailer move from anti-social to social? What is the difference between an anti-social and a social retailer?

The core lies in whether or not you are acting in your self-interest and depleting the value of a network (i.e. spamming a feed) or are you acting in a way to:

...help make your customers’ lives simpler, less confusing, less alienating, more efficient, more meaningful and just plain better?

Being a social retailer doesn’t mean you leverage the social networking tools to your maximum ROI outcome. It means you provide value for your customers.

We have a funny saying in the startup world that goes something like, “A successful startup will help others get made, laid or paid (or all of the above).” Though a bit crass, it outlines ways in which we help our customers achieve their dreams and, in return, they help us achieve ours.

Retail and especially fashion is incredibly aspirational at its finest. If people only bought out of necessity, there would be no retail industry. Dressing well leaves a good impression with a potential employer. A sports car can impress a potential mate. A new laptop can unlock better income potential. A pair of Tom’s Shoes or Warby Parker glasses can be a conversation piece just about anywhere. Shopping and style are inherently social. No tweets, pins or likes necessary. But tweets, pins and likes come from people owning, loving and aspiring to own all of this.

Zappos and ASOS were both social companies before they even touched social media. They understood what made their customers’ lives more efficient: free fast shipping both ways and great customer service. Warby Parker and Tom’s Shoes don’t need social media managers in order to be social. They understand what made their customers lives more meaningful: buying products that look good AND give back. Apple has been said to not ‘get’ social. Really? Between the genius bar, Apple Care and a razor focus on creating seamless user experience, they made my life simpler when it came to technology. Even though C Wonder isn't tweeting or facebooking too much, I think of them as a social retailer. Their iPad roaming checkout process made my life way more efficient as I didn’t have to stand in a long line to buy a belt for a girlfriend. I’ll tell the world about that experience.

Social media tools may come and go, but your budgets should always remain focused on the bottom line:

“What is that thing we can do to help make our customers’ lives simpler, less confusing, less alienating, more efficient, more meaningful and just plain better?”

It really is that simple. And that’s how you become a social retailer...by being social.

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