Thursday, 16 June 2011

On online shopping and the art of persuasion

On Monday, Kevin Hillstrom, the president of Mine That Data and a regular speaker at the ECMOD conference, wrote a blog about multichannel attribution. (You can read it here.) He described how he had decided to buy a new TV from Crutchfield, a US-based retailer of consumer electronics products. In just one month, Hillstrom received a catalogue, abandoned basket notification, free gift offer, a lower price, and an email featuring the selected TV, alongside a free shipping offer. He asked readers to deconstruct that information and explain which marketing activity caused the order, bearing in mind that he had already made up his mind to buy from Crutchfield.

Now, I don’t want to wade into the argument. In fact, what interests me most about this experience is just how hard Crutchfield worked to get the sale. With more than a hint of disappointment I can safely say no retailer has ever courted me like that. The closest I have come is a “Thank you for your interest” email from John Lewis and a couple of “we miss you” emails every now and then. As for abandoned-basket emails, the last one I saw was one my boss forwarded me from hair and beauty care brand Aveda.


To show the contrast between Crutchfield’s tenacious approach to get Kevin to buy the TV, and the more laid-back sales tactics I am accustomed to, here’s my recent experience shopping for shoes. I was looking to buy a pair of Converse Ox trainers and started out using Google’s shopping search.  My buying decision was based on price: Who could give me the best deal on Converse Ox trainers. After trying the usual shoe suspects, I ended up on eBay’s fashion outlet. I clicked “watch” on a pair of trainers so that I could save my choice and continue browsing.  You’re probably expecting me to say that a pair of trainers followed me around the internet as I continued searching. However, because a lot of my browsing was done on a smartphone I didn’t see any of the now ubiquitous retargeting ads.

A couple of days later I noticed the price of my watched item had been reduced by 15 percent, and still had free delivery. Was that intentional or a coincidence? Could the seller, knowing he had only four pairs in that size in stock, used the tactic to tempt the “watchers” he had? Or was it that with only four pairs in stock, he wanted to shift them faster? Or, was it always the plan to reduce the items a certain number of days before the “buy it now” auction ended? Whatever the reason, I took the bait and bought the shoes.
Now get this—six days after I bought the shoes I received an email from eBay: “Miri Thomas, recommended just for you”. Remember, eBay knows I bought the shoes. So why on earth did it send me a selection of Converse trainers? As Kevin Hillstrom would say, “Oh boy…”

eBay's idea of what I'd like. Not in my size though.

Faring slightly better in trying to woo me was Dell. But only slightly. In March, we bought a new PC. In June, we received a mailing from Dell with 10 percent off related accessories—a nice touch. However, if we were in the market for accessories we would have bought them in the first couple of months of buying the computer—and we did. We got a new printer and a new mouse in April from another online retailer. Dell missed the boat.

Crutchfield wanted the sale and it worked for it. The eBay merchant was on the ball, but the online marketplace got its emails wrong. And as for Dell, I give it top marks for the idea, but it was let down by poor timing.

For the marketer, Crutchfield’s sales technique is, as Hillstrom puts it, an “attribution nightmare”. But as a consumer, Crutchfield’s approach is seductive. Hands up: who among you would rather receive an email showing you the shoes you could have bought, or the PC accessories you already have over a free gift to go with the shiny new TV you have put in your basket but haven’t purchased yet?

Thought so.--MT

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Idea to steal: managing unsubscribes

I accidentally unsubscribed from Argos’s email list earlier this week. Luckily though, the retailer was on the case to rectify that error. With the subject line “Are you sure?”, Argos’s email immediately caught my attention in a crowded inbox. It continued: “We are sorry to see you have recently chosen not to hear from us. Argos emails are a great way to be the first to know about our best deals, exclusive competitions and much, much more. If you have changed your mind or didn’t mean to unsubscribe, please let us know by clicking here.” This simple, no-fuss email ensured that I quickly added myself back to the list.
Do you know how many of your email recipients have inadvertently unsubscribed? An email like this is a neat way to win them back. What have you got to lose?--MT

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Catalogues we love: Garden Bird Supplies

First, an admission: I am not green-thumbed at all. My idea of gardening is getting the weedkiller out once in a while. But I live in the countryside and appreciate just how lucky I am to wake up to the sound of chirping birds and clean air. This is why I love the Garden Bird Supplies “Garden Bird Feeding Guide”: comprehensive enough for devoted twitchers and inclusive enough so that novices can make informed decisions on how to attract wild birds to their gardens.

The Garden Bird Feeding Guide

What I like about it:

•    Educational
The “how to help” article on pages 8 through 9 guides readers through seven steps to creating a habitat for wild birds. With tips like keeping your bird-feeders topped up during the spring and “don’t over-tidy your garden, and leave plenty of scrappy material [for birds to construct their nests]”, the tips are logical and easy to follow. There’s also an incredibly handy chart to the “20 Popular Garden Birds” to help wannabe birdwatchers identify local wildlife and feed them accordingly. 

•    Engaging
Garden Bird Supplies lets its customers get involved with the catalogue, not only through a “News from readers” section, featuring customer letters and photographs, but also by using customer photographs throughout the book—usually at the top-left corner of each spread. The copy is also very friendly and helpful. Each section has an introductory paragraph outlining the benefits of those particular products. For example, this introducing a range of cleaning products:

“Birds are at risk from disease if we do not keep our feeding stations clean and hygienic. In this section you will find a complete range of cleaning products which will create a healthy environment for your garden birds. We also have a selection of deterrents to help keep your birds safe from predators.”

Then, for each individual product, there’s even more information and features like “squirrel resistant” and “easy to clean and comes apart in one simple motion”. It helps even the most clueless of gardeners choose the right food and the best way to present it.

I also like the eye-catching callouts beside some of products, like “popular with robins and softbills” and “feed from a table or on the ground”.
The treat cakes page
•    The photography
My favourite photo is on page 9 (below), showing a mistle thrush pulling a worm out of the ground. You can really see the effort on the little bird’s face.  The product photography is also well done too, especially the photos showing the birds enjoying the food.
A determined mistle thrush on page 9
•    Easy to shop from
A cardinal sin in any catalogue is making it difficult for the customer to locate important information, such as product details or delivery charge. Garden Bird Supplies sidesteps this with front and back covers that do a good job of highlighting the core message. The covers promote 15 percent off a selected line, free delivery, and the company’s “buy in bulk, save money” maxim with page references as to where more information can be found.  On the opening spread, Garden Bird Supplies reiterates the offer code and gives a nod to the website, where customers can join a forum or subscribe to the enewsletter. It also includes a table of contents on page 3 of the 64-page catalogue to help customers navigate the book.

Garden Bird Supplies knows it’s not the cheapest on the market, so to persuade customers to spend that little bit extra it relies on its wildlife expertise and in-depth knowledge of wild birds and their habitats. The result is a friendly, informative and engaging catalogue that holds appeal for gardeners of all skill levels.--MT

Monday, 6 June 2011

Compare and contrast--Clarks

In the US, Clarks shoes are available to buy through Clarks’ stores, concessions and online. It must be doing something right as according to published reports, pretax profits at the Somerset-based shoe retailer grew by 28 percent to £109 million ($178 million) in 2010, with revenues up 9.2 percent to £1.28 billion ($2.10 billion). The growth is said to be driven by Clarks’ overseas business, particularly North America, where sales increased 19 percent, compared with just 1 percent in the UK and Ireland. So what makes it so successful stateside?

The home pages
A trend I’ve noticed writing compare and contrast blog posts is that the home pages of the US websites we’ve looked at tend to be less crowded than UK home pages—the rule applies here too. The UK Clarks home page (below) has one large central image featuring eight pairs of shoes. To the right of the image are more graphics—promoting £15 off selected lines, highlighting Clarks’ boutique range, announcing a saving of £25 on selected men’s ranges, and two smaller boxes calling out kids’ canvas-style shoes.

The UK Clarks home page

Below the main image are three graphics that click through to men’s, women’s and children’s styles. Below those is one more banner announcing Clarks as an official partner of Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life event. And there’s even more—at the very bottom of the page are text links to the various departments and help pages. Contrast this with the US home page (below). It features a large central image of two people standing on a boat, the UK site features only shoes and feet on the home page. Below the main image is a banner for flip-flops, and below that are text links—but far fewer than on the UK site.

Clarks USA home page

Do British consumers prefer a busier home page? I’d imagine plenty of A/B testing takes place to get this crucial space right, so I can only assume that we do. A sparser page may look tidier, but the British home page provides more to click on, aiding navigation and encouraging users to take particular paths through the site.

Out of curiosity, I took a look at Clarks’ French and German websites too. The German home page was very similar to the UK home, with an almost identical layout and imagery. The French site also bore more of a similarity to the British home page, than the US one, though the main image differed slightly in layout. In total Clarks has 28 websites, including local-language sites for China, Greece and Russia, each slightly different from the other.

But coming back to the USA and UK websites, both feature some sort of delivery offer on the home page. The UK website promotes free delivery and free returns, while the US site promises “flat fee shipping & free returns”. Each provides a link to a delivery details page. Here the UK site trumps its US sister; the copy is broken up into coloured boxes with each option clearly spelled out, from free delivery to Saturday delivery to a collect-in-store service. The US site looks more formal, in plain black text with a delivery options table. It is very thorough though and states plainly what Clarks can and can’t do when it comes to delivery.
A final point about the home page, visitors to the US Clarks site can also shop the “Bostonian”, a brand of men’s shoes, via a tab on the home page. No such tab exists on the UK site. In fact, type Bostonian into the site search on the British site and you’ll reach a “no results” page.

Let’s go shopping
Moving further into the site, there are several ways a potential customer can find product. Visitors can use the site search function, click on the main image, select a department from the top navigation bar, use a drop-down menu from the main nav bar, or, in the case of the British site, choose one of the boxes on the right.

Choosing from the drop-down menu, there were many more options on the UK site. The women’s menu, for example, has 32 links. Visitors can choose from 16 product types—such as sandals, clogs, handbags—and from 16 “features”—including teens, sports, nautical styles. In contrast, the US women’s menu has only eight links.

I clicked on Sandals and was taken to two very different pages. On the UK site, I was shown 25 styles by default, but I could choose to have up to 100 products displayed and sort them by price ascending, price descending, and alphabetically, but not by brand. The left-hand nav bar allowed me to refine my search further, by size, colour and price, for example. The US site uses a horizontal bar for refinement options as well as a left-hand nav bar to shop by collection or brand, or select a different type of shoe.

UK product page

I had a good look around the site, but didn’t find two styles the same in order to compare the product pages, so I chose to compare two items of the same brand. Both websites carry the charity-supporting Soul of Africa collection. And both sites allow the visitor to “quick view” an item selected without navigating away from the page. A handy touch if the shopper wants to compare different styles without clicking back and forward too often.  Moving to the actual product page, the US site has a much bigger image of the product, with a very good zoom function. The zoom on the UK site takes longer to load, but seems to get closer to the product. Both sites also have cross-selling features and social-media bookmarking links, but unlike many of its shoe-selling competitors, there are no user reviews on the US site.

US product page

I added the item to my basket and headed for the checkout. Here, again, the British site introduced more colour to guide the user through the process. There was also a big banner informing me that Clarks now accepts Paypal, allaying any security fears I may have about entering my credit-card details. The US website was more function, less colour, but allowed me to checkout as a guest. The UK site required me to enter my email address at checkout so that it could confirm my order. Both sites get top marks for including a clear breadcrumb trail of how far I’d come along the checkout process and how many more steps remained.

All in all, the Clarks websites are very robust and user-friendly. There are obvious differences between the UK and US sites, but that does not necessarily make one better than the other. I do question Clarks’ decision not to include product reviews on the American site, though.  The Clarks USA website is a million miles away from American sites Zappos or eBags, with their busy home pages and feature-packed product pages. But perhaps that’s the whole point and the secret of its appeal.--MT

Thursday, 2 June 2011

What we learned from 58 bank holiday weekend emails

If, like me, you spent the bank holiday weekend fighting off a nasty bout of flu, you will have had time to read your emails instead of having fun and enjoying the, erm, “Great British Summer”. You will have also noticed several marketers using the bank holiday as a hook for their special offers last week. Like any event or special date in the calendar, the bank holiday weekend makes for excellent email fodder, so in my paracetamol-induced haze I had the idea of saving all my emails for analysis.

I took a random sample of 58 emails I received between Friday, 27th May and Monday, 30th May. Of the 58 emails I tallied, at least four merchants sent me more than one email during the course of the long weekend. So what did they have to tell me that was so important they needed to contact me twice? Pet Supermarket sent me a food-storage themed email on Sunday with no mention of the bank holiday. The following day it emailed to let me know that I had just 48 hours to get 10 percent off my order. The subject line worked to instil a sense of urgency, but I was much less excited when I learned I needed to spend £79 to qualify for the discount.

Another retailer, equestrian supplies specialist Derby House, emailed me on Friday announcing “75% OFF Bank Holiday Outlet Clearance*”. Asterisks in subject lines are never a good thing and should be avoided in my opinion. I looked up the footnote, which referred to 183 words of terms and conditions. Sure, they needed to be there, but perhaps the subject line wasn’t the ideal place to point them out. On Monday, the email from Derby House was titled “Hurry, these offers end midnight tomorrow!”—thankfully no asterisk this time.

Something for the weekend
Although Derby House mentioned the bank holiday in the subject line of one of its emails, it was in the minority of merchants that did so. Unexpectedly, more than four out of five emails (81 percent) did not include a reference to the bank holiday in the subject line. Those that did included apparel cataloguer Tulchan: “Bank Holiday Bonanza from Tulchan” and homewares cataloguer/retailer Cologne & Cotton: “A Great Bank Holiday Offer From Cologne and Cotton”. I was also impressed by Cologne & Cotton’s efforts to link email with its other channels. It featured a printable coupon that customers can use in-store to redeem 15 percent off selected lines.
Cologne & Cotton
Eight of the 58 emails, or 14 percent, did not mention the bank holiday in the subject line but did include it in the body of the email. Hush and Frugi definitely missed a trick here. Let’s start with apparel retailer Hush’s subject line: “Miri - The Grocer's Son, last chance to win Lazy Linen bundles from The Sleep Room, harem trousers update etc”. Okay, it gets a thumbs up for its attempt at personalisation, but “etc”? And where’s Hush’s product in this email, third in line with a “harem trousers update”—not even a special offer, but a stock update. I know Hush is known for its soft-sell approach, but burying a free delivery promotion at the bottom of the email just doesn’t make sense to me. Especially considering customers have to spend £75 to qualify for the offer.

Childrenswear brand Frugi sent an email titled “Something special to celebrate our 7th birthday”. The email then went on to offer free delivery and a 3-for-2 deal, as well as a Facebook competition to win a “Frugi birthday present”. I can’t help but think that open rates would have improved if Frugi had simply added “Free UK delivery” or “Win Frugi goodies” to the subject line.
Speaking of Facebook, my sample showed that 78 percent of emails featured some sort of social-bookmarking link. When we ran a similar study in 2009, only 17 percent included a link to the company’s Facebook page, Twitter feed, or other third-party social-media site. While this is a huge improvement, there’s still more to be done. One in every five emails is missing out on the opportunity social networking presents to get closer to its audience.

Another missed opportunity is personalisation, with 90 percent of the merchants in my sample failing to personalise any element of the email. Just six emails featured any sort of personalisation: Hush, Yours Clothing and Chemist Direct opted for including my name in the subject line. Gifts marketer Cox & Cox and apparel etailer Curvissa chose to address me by name in the body of the email. Fashion retailer New Look’s personalisation was evident in the preheader text: “Miri, if you can't view our e-mail, click here”.
My favourite use of preheader text came courtesy of cosmetics marketer Feelunique. The preheader, also known “snippet text” appears in the inbox of some email clients along with the subject line. Often only used to remind readers they can view the email in their web browsers, preheaders have the potential to work much harder for the brand, something Feelunique clearly appreciates. Here’s how it maximised the chances of having its email opened: “It’s last of the long weekends & we’re giving you just the ticket to satisfy your beauty needs all weekend. Get a whopping £5 off any order when you spend only £45 or more – get summer sorted!” That’s everything a reader would need to help make the decision of whether to open the email or not. So much more effective than saying “Not displaying correctly, click here to view it in your browser”, don’t you agree?

The big deal
If 80 percent of emails were not promoting a bank holiday-related offer, they had to be promoting something else, right? Forty-five percent of subject lines made mention of a price-related offer, for example “25% off all clothing including online exclusives” at Tesco, and “This week’s top offers - up to 50% off!” at Debenhams. Twelve percent of emails chose to promote free delivery, or in apparel retailer Wallis’s case, a lower delivery charge of £1. A scant 5 percent offered a free gift, including cosmetics brand Clinique and mail order butcher Donald Russell: “New Butchers Specials - Get FREE burgers with orders over £80!”.

And finally, here’s one for the “Huh?” file. Toys and games etailer Smyths sent me an email tiled “Save €'s..Get Top Rated Games For Less”. The Galway-based retailer sent me its euro-priced email instead of the sterling email. Smyths needs to be more stringent with its segmentation. It knows I live in the UK—it even sent me a catalogue at Christmas—so why am I on the list for an Eire-only promotion?--MT
Smyths Toys

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

May Catalogue Log

Pop quiz: Out of 91 catalogues received in May, what percentage would you say promoted a sale or discount on their front covers? If you’ve answered almost half, you’d be right. Forty-five of catalogues we logged during May 2011 featured some sort of price-related promotion on the cover. That almost matches superpromotional February, which saw 51 catalogues out of 104 offering a sale or discount.  The offer was popular in a number of product categories including apparel (Cotton Traders, Wrap), office supplies and promotional products (IJT Direct, 4imprint), and IT products (Dell).
May Offers Chart
Now compare this with a year ago. While a discount was still the most popular special offer in May last year, the percentage was appreciably lower. In May 2010, just 32.5 percent of covers promised a special-price offer, compared with 49.4 percent last month. The discounts offered this year were also quite deep, with plenty of apparel cataloguers offering more than 20 percent off—including Pure Collection, The Shoe Tailor, Hotter Comfort Concept and Damart.

Much more popular last year was free delivery, which was offered by 24.1 percent of covers. In May 2011, free delivery was only offered by 16 catalogues, or 17.8 percent. Again, a wide cross-section of product categories promoted free delivery on the cover including apparel (Brora), gardening (Garden Bird Supplies, Wiggly Wigglers), and office supplies (Staples Direct).

One offer that was almost twice as popular last year was a free gift with purchase. We noted that 20.5 percent of catalogues logged in May 2010 offered a freebie, compared with just 11 percent in May 11. Incidentally 11 percent was also the figure we recorded in May 2009. Looking back at the data, most of the free gifts in 2010 were offered by business-to-business cataloguers, with the exceptions including homewares catalogue Really Linda Barker and gifts marketer The Owl Barn—two catalogues we did not receive this May.

NotontheHighStreet's small gift guide

The percentage of catalogue covers not offering any sort of special deal fell from 47 percent in April to 37.8 percent in May, or 34 out of 91. One of those catalogues choosing not to tempt us with promotions was gifts marketer, which instead sent two versions of its Perfect Gift Guide 2011.

Centre spread, large catalogue

Both were 36-page catalogues, but one was mailed naked on thick-grade matt paper, while the other was a smaller format on thinner, silkier paper stock. Playing spot the difference with the mailings showed subtle differences in the layout and design of the spreads, but the products were mostly the same. If this was a test mailing to see which yielded a better response, it’s odd that I received both editions. I ran quick poll in the Catablogue e-business office to gauge preference. Sixty percent opted for the smaller, glossier catalogue for tactile reasons. The larger format won kudos for seeming to be more environmentally friendly, though the paper carried no eco-friendly credentials that I could see. In case you’re interested, I chose the larger format because of standout appeal—it looked different to the other 90 catalogues I looked at last month. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to NotontheHighStreet to analyse.--MT

Centre spread, small catalogue