E-tailers Benefit When Customers Run the Show

Before “E” had anything to do with commerce, way back in the 1990s, the “e-word” usually referred to empowerment.

Have e-tailers forgotten the essential lessons of not-so-long ago? Consumers like to be in the driver’s seat, and just because we have introduced a new genre of shopping does not mean we can take that away.

Recently, two Massachusetts-based researchers published results of a study on this topic in the Harvard Business Review. The results shed light on a buying public that has had enough of cookies, et al., and that clearly wants to call the shots when it comes to individualizing the shopping experience.

In the study, 42 percent of respondents said they saw no real advantages of a Web site deciding their preferences or interests for them.

The message to e-tailers is that in the battle over who should dictate customization — the shopper or the seller — everyone wins if shoppers are given the chance to design their own online experience.

Faulty Technology

Some reasons for the popularity of consumer customization are obvious. When customers are spending their own disposable income, the need to make their personal wishes clear to the seller is fundamental.

Beyond that, however, the need for customer control has much to do with technology that is not sophisticated enough to look at the big picture in a transaction.

For example, say I choose Amazon.com to purchase a Rosemary Clooney CD for my octogenarian mother. Does that mean that every time I go back to Amazon to shop for music, the site should automatically suggest more Clooney, as well as Mel Torme and Vic Damone, when my own tastes clearly lean toward Don Henley and Sting?

Somehow, the technology did not notice that I sent the Clooney CD as a gift to my mother’s address in another city. Doesn’t this suggest a significant glitch in the artificial-intelligence technology?

Time Management

Why have so many e-tailers opted for forced personalization, leading to awkward results like the scenario described above? The e-tailers assume that consumers will not take the time required to customize a Web site for themselves.

The Harvard Business Review study challenges this assumption, finding that 93 percent of those surveyed have indeed customized at least one Web site for themselves, and 25 percent have customized more than one.

Customers do so for several reasons, not the least of which is to prevent irritating wastes of time.

The Winners Are

Fortunately, some e-tailers have already figured out that they need to cater to these customer desires. On the home page of personal beauty site Reflect.com, for example, consumers are instantly invited to customize their shopping experience by creating “one-of-a-kind beauty products inspired by your individuality.”

The consumer is asked to reveal ethnic background, age, living situation and more lifestyle and personal preference details, all geared toward creating products that work exclusively for him or her. Moisturizers and cleansers, for example, are formulated based in part on the consumer’s answers to questions about sun exposure and skin sensitivity.

At the same time, Reflect.com is a licensee of theTRUSTe privacy program, and promises that it “will nevershare or sell your personal information. Period.”

Other sites that honor the customer’s wishes for customization include Nike.com, the site that allows consumers to actually design their own shoes, and Dell.com, the computer maker that enables users to detail desired specs for a computer that will be constructed exclusively for them.

Why Customize?

Okay, so the advantages for consumers are evident. But what do e-tailers gain from customization?

A lot. First, they instantly begin establishing a working relationship with the customer who takes his or her time to outline personal preferences. Second, as Jupiter Communications pointed out last year, the end products achieved through customization bring manufacturers respectable margins. Merchandise does not remain in inventory very long, nor does it require any type of middleman.

Additionally, traffic tie-ups on Web sites are likely to be reduced if a customer can get in and get out quickly, after having specified preferences on a previous visit.

Nordstrom.com will always know a consumer’s shoe size after his initial visit, when he specified his size and style preferences. Similarly, Landsend.com encourages users to create a model based on their measurements, so in future visits, the company can use the model to display individual items for the customer’s consideration.

Why customize? Because shopping is personal and consumers are powerful. And, because of the “e-word.”

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necesarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

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