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Jun 18, 2008 | 5 minute read

Asking Customers to Go Steady: Tips for Repeat Orders

written by Linda Bustos

Jason Billingsley and I are always on the hunt for ecommerce trends and innovations. And one of the areas Jason will be covering in Thursday's webinar Ecommerce Innovations: What's Now and What's Next is loyalty programs. (There's still time to sign up!)

Subscription options for consumables is not necessarily a new concept, but certainly an underused tactic of online retailers.

It's far more common to see e-tailers offering tiered pricing (discounts on quantity) to increase basket size. But customers don't always want to order a case lot of something -- who has room for a year's worth of coffee in the cupboard? Others don't have the cash-on-hand to pre-purchase items.

Subscriptions are a great way to:

  • Maximize lifetime customer revenue for the item
  • Save customer time, storage space and money
  • Build long term service relationship with customer
  • Potentially sell more/different items over time

How Online Retailers Are Using Product Subscriptions

I first noticed Amazon using subscriptions on select consumables a while ago. The program is called Subscribe & Save, and Amazon has a directory of items that qualify.

  • Offers 15% discount
  • Choose from 1, 2, 3 or 6 month delivery intervals
  • 2 calls-to-action (blue boxes) - hard for shoppers to miss
  • Customers are only charged when items leave warehouse
  • Email notifications are sent before reorder, customer can modify order if necessary
  • Customers can cancel anytime

I just don't understand why every product on Amazon is a wedding or baby registry candidate... and Walgreen's allow customers to select their own delivery schedule.

Walgreen's and allow auto-refill on prescription drugs, but not on all the other product they carry that would also make for great subscriptions like baby formula, diapers, vitamins, razor blades, pet food, shampoo and so on.

Offering Incentives

Amazon gives 15% discount on all Subscribe & Save items. Nutrica offers a free box of vitamins -- even if you cancel your subscription, just for giving it a shot. Doctors Foster and Smith offer the 10th shipment free in its Catered Pet program.

Communicating Value combines tiered pricing with subscription and provides a chart that shows the price savings on automatic re-orders vs. one-off shipments for each tier. Strikeout prices are effective, as are big, bold or red discount prices, "you save X% or $X" etc.

Purity Products uses % savings and "Best Value!" messaging:

You can choose your delivery interval from the cart, and you find a surprise free gift:

Helping Customers Choose Frequency

Nutrica sells vitamins and supplements, so it's easy to let customers estimate their expected daily use and select the right monthly program.

Psoriacream gives recommendations based on the severity of one's psoriasis problem.

Customer review content that addresses product life would be helpful for first-time buyers. For example, how long does a shampoo bottle last long-haired women who wash their hair 3-4 times a week vs. short haired men who wash every day vs. a couple who shares a bottle? How long does 2 lbs of coffee beans last someone who drinks 2 cups a day?

A tool could also be programmed to ask the customer a few questions about their lifestyle and then recommend a frequency. This would depend on the product, whether it's worth it to program such a tool or not.

Another idea is to use "customers who bought X chose Y delivery time" similar to reviews -- one could see that out of 25 customers who subscribed to refill razors, 18 selected 1 month refills, for example.

Some products like mascara should be replaced every few months for hygienic reasons - even if there's product left in the tube. What an opportunity for pricey makeup stores to gain repeat business -- many customers are not aware of that or need to be reminded.

Subscribe is a Call-To-Action

Some retailers have programs, but don't show it on the product page. That's a head-scratcher for me...

Others, like Green Mountain Coffee, are just very subtle about it. The "Recurring Delivery" option is near-invisible, and once you add the item to cart, there is no further announcement that you can subscribe to the product.

Since subscriptions bring more money than single purchases, why are they not treated as valuable calls to action?

Alternative Payments

Cenestra Health uses PayPal subscriptions for recurring orders, which may ease the fears of customers who don't want you to charge their credit card on a regular basis.

Usability Issues allows you to order a variety of flavors of a product in whatever quantity you want, as described below. However, it's asking a lot from its customers to enter the details in the middle of checkout. Shoppers must remember the names of the flavors after they've navigated from the product page unless they open up a new tab to check out - otherwise they'll need to call the order in.

Subscription Program Tips

  • If you've got a program, flaunt it on your product pages - don't bury it deep in your site or use near-invisible links
  • Link to program details from your product page, preferably without leaving the page (AJAX or pop-up window)
  • Clearly communicate shipping charges, billing dates, cancellation policies, pricing policies (are prices subject to change?), how customers can update billing information, shipping address or subscription preferences in your details
  • Communicate the benefits (savings and convenience) of subscribing
  • Remind customers of health and safety reasons for replacing products regularly, if applicable
  • Select realistic delivery options suitable to your product. Don't force customers into 1, 2, 3, 6 months just because Amazon does it
  • Help customers figure out their best reorder schedule. This can be done through customer reviews, questionnaire tools or historical repeat purchase data
  • Create a section where customers can browse all products eligible for subscription
  • If you use cross-sells, recommend eligible subscription products
  • Send a reminder email shortly before you fulfill a repeat order, remind customers they can modify their order (and remind them of their login name or password!)
  • If a customer didn't opt-in for subscription, ask for permission to send a reminder email in X months instead. Customer may not want to commit to transaction but may still be interested in a friendly reminder in time
  • If using the above tactic, send the email with an incentive for repurchase and several similar items, should the product ordered not have been satisfactory, customer can choose something else
  • Consider "{product} of the month" clubs -- get creative. They don't have to be gifts for other people, and they don't have to be consumables, either.