The venerable dean of business journalism, the Wall Street Journal, published an article today (Dec. 7, 2006) about the rise in customer reviews for products other than electronics, computer gear, books and other media. Specifically, writer James Covert discusses the issues around a retailer's decision to expose their product catalog to the public for comments - whether good or bad.
Wall Street Journal article
The article "Online Clothes Reviews Give 'Love That Dress' New Clout" is available online with WSJ (subscription required), but in general, ... the article discusses scenarios in which clothing retailers have (or have not) implemented consumer-driven reviews and the reasons why they do (or don't) buy into the idea using examples including Macy's, Sears, the Gap, J.C. Penney, Amazon.com, Home Depot, Petco Animal Supplies, Target Corp., Saks Fifth Avenue, plus Elastic Path and Power Reviews.
In some cases, offering reviews became a product inventory "filter" meaning poor reviews led to the product's demise, while in other cases, the review strategy launched a participatory community whose collective involvement ultimately led to an increase in site traffic, more conversions, reduction in returns and happier shoppers.
However community-building isn't necessarily easy to do. In order for a site's review system to gain traction, the retailer must nurture and embrace the consistency of passionate customers in order to engage them into the reviewing routine. Further, online retailers must build trust by accepting all reviews (positive or negative) and not "seeding" the reviews with keyword -laden marketing verbiage. Elastic Path's Jason Billingsley offers comments on the possible use of this strategy:
The tech vendors like PowerReviews and Bazaarvoice have staffers who screen the review emails for relevance and objectionable content, such as profanity. But negative comments about merchandise remain intact, the companies say.
Advocates of reviews say the feedback is more useful than focus groups because shoppers tend to be so frank in their emails. Another benefit for retailers: Reviews boost traffic by adding keywords that might not turn up in a retailer's product description, but might be used by shoppers to search for clothing online, says Jason Billingsley of Elastic Path Software, a Vancouver-based consultant.
Some reviews do such a good job that they look suspicious, Mr. Billingsley says. A recent online review that read "Festive yet classy. Simple yet dressy. Comfy yet still fun," and prominently included the name of the maker, raised his eyebrows. On top of the sales-pitch diction, the entry contains "tons of keywords" that would come in handy as search terms, Mr. Billingsley says. Such a review "could raise suspicion and cause us to investigate," says Sam Decker, vice president of marketing at Bazaarvoice. However, while other online retailers, notably travel resorts, have received attention in the past for alleged fake reviews, "we have not seen this to be a problem" in apparel, Mr. Decker adds.
To facilitate this tricky step of populating a site with useful comments, noted retailer Macy's offered a gift card contest promotion to jump start their product reviews with great success. Other retailers actively follow up with shoppers asking for reviews by email and others encourage posting photos of the customer wearing the product.
Convert's article also talks to the concerns which retailers - particularly high-end clothiers - have about implementing reviews. The article mentions retailers fearing dilution of brand cachet or simply not wanting to further separate the shopper from "professional" shopping assistants' opinion. For example, despite the success of reviews on their flagship Macy's store, the parent company Federated Department Stores declined to implement into the more upscale Bloomingdale's site like Nordstrom's who also rely on professional advisers to influence purchasing decisions for their clientele.