In his latest guest column for InternetRetailing, veteran retailer David Kohn considers what works for retailers that sell higher price items, from ski equipment to furniture
In my time in retail, I’ve had the good fortune to experience roles in a variety of product markets. Having got a grounding in variety stores such as Woolworths and WH Smith, I moved into ecommerce where I’ve worked with products ranging from books (Waterstones) to specialist sporting goods (Snow+Rock Group) to furniture (Heal’s).
In this piece I’d like to look at how selling higher ticket products like furniture and ski equipment differs from selling lower ticket items. To some extent retail is retail, and many principles are universal. But, if you’re in the business of selling items that come with a high price point, it’s worth understanding what makes shopping for these different.
The principal thing to understand is that for the customer the stakes are higher. With almost every purchase, large or small, there’s a fear of getting it wrong (#FOGIW), but the more you spend the more the fear grows. When you’re spending a tenner, you can generally accept the odd buying mistake; it’s different when you’re buying something that costs a couple of week’s wages.
This anxiety is heightened by the ‘permanence’ and prominence of the item you’re buying. When you buy a new item of clothing it becomes one of many in your wardrobe, and can be ‘disappeared’ or disposed of easily if you decide you no longer like it. When you buy a sofa or dining table, however, it’s going to be the centrepiece of your room and is likely to be around for many years.
The fear of getting it wrong extends to practical issues. For example, will the sofa fit in my living room, in fact will they be able to get it through my front door? What happens if I don’t like it or there’s a problem with it – how do I even return such a big item? What if I buy it now and find it cheaper somewhere else, or even from the same retailer when they have their sale?
So, with all of this FOGIW swimming around, what can the retailer do about it? I’d suggest that there are four key things that need to be considered.
This is, of course, a key element of almost all purchases – low or high ticket – but you have to work a little bit harder when selling more expensive items. You must start with storytelling. All successful brands are built on a brand story that customers can buy into, and high-ticket retailers are no exception. But these retailers need to take it further and create a story for each individual product. Demonstrate clearly why you love this product, and this will help the customer feel like they should as well.
You also have to work a little harder at visualisation. Most people have limited visual imagination, so need to see actual images – static or moving – before they really get them. In fashion, it’s relatively simple – you find great looking models and put your clothes on them. In interiors, you have to go a step further and create a mini-world that customers can aspire to and see themselves living within. Visualisation really is not an area to economise on if you’re serious about selling high ticket product.
Satisfying the rational needs of the customer
With higher ticket products, the customer is likely to go through a comprehensive information gathering process. For more technical product, like ski equipment or electrical items, there’ll be a host of questions that have to be answered. So, put yourself in the customer’s shoes and get to know what they’re really asking. If you have stores, the shop floor teams are a great resource for finding this out, as is your customer service team. Once you know the questions, use them to direct your content creation effort, and try to structure the info so that customers can effectively access it. A lot of focus should go to the product page but don’t forget generic pages, like size or care guides, as these can often be the clinchers.
You should also consider very seriously the value of personal service during the information gathering phase. Even if you provide great content in a crystal-clear structure, many of your customers will still have questions that remain unanswered. I’ve written previously about the value of having real people on the end of a phone line or on live chat or on social. I remain convinced that any retailer of complex or expensive product needs to find ways of connecting prospective customers to real people who can give advice and recommendations and answer questions.
Connecting customers to real people also supports the third requirement, namely that of providing emotional reassurance. People need to know that they’re dealing with a trustworthy company that will value them as a customer. Customers are far more likely to look up service reviews when they’re spending more. If you’ve made a big deal about your sustainability or community credentials, they’re more likely to look into it. So, make sure that your story is backed up with reality. Over-invest in fulfilment and customer service, and make sure that you’re not only acting honourably but also seen to be acting honourably. Some customers will never be satisfied, and will take to multiple channels to rant and rave, but if you can demonstrate that you’ve dealt with them fairly most people will understand this.
The post-purchase experience
Another aspect of emotional reassurance, and one that’s often neglected, is the post-purchase experience. After-sales too often looks like an attempt to sell the customer something extra that they don’t really want. What it can be instead is an opportunity to reassure them that they’ve made a good decision and to add value to their purchase. With exercise equipment, for example, you can link to free online programmes or offer up healthy recipes. With furniture, which often comes on a lead-time, you have to frequently update on progress, so why not take the opportunity to tell the customer more about the provenance of the product or offer styling tips. With any product, you can offer free stuff, such as a care product. In my experience, people love free stuff, and a low-cost unexpected addition to the basket is often be the main thing that a customer remembers.
Managing the buying process
The phrase that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” is perhaps a little overblown in this context, but there’s no doubt that the more you can get a customer to make even a small commitment, the more likely they are to complete the purchase process. So, think about whether you can create micro-conversions within your experience. For example, if you have a product configurator, encourage the customer to use it and make it easy for them to save what they’ve done. If you offer fabric samples, make them as prominent as you can, and do what you can to encourage take up. If you provide live chat, try and get the customer to engage with it and start a dialogue.
This is one area where technology can also play a significant role. With online journeys, if you can track where the customer is in the process, you can try to offer them the thing that’s most likely to enable them to move to the next step, be that more information, greater reassurance, alternative suggestions or (reluctantly) an incentive.
Perhaps the most important thing is to be patient and not try to do everything at once. With high consideration purchases you have to accept that the customer is in a process that takes time. So, perhaps, don’t offer the voucher on first visit or retarget them immediately with product carousels. If you can understand the journey that they’re on and what they need to help them move to the next step, you’re much more likely to get them to the end.
David Kohn is a retail veteran whose experience most recently includes customer and ecommerce director at Heal’s, and previously commercial and digital roles at WHSmith, Waterstones, Borders and Snow+Rock Group. Now acting as an independent advisor, David remains on the look-out for interesting and effective innovations.