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Buying What You Can’t Touch

Matt Popkes
VP of Strategy

It’s not that unlikely and it’s not that far away. Sooner than you think, propeller-powered drones could be weaving through suburban skies, carrying boxes emblazoned with that familiar smiling logo. As they touch down in driveways, porches and building tops all over your city, eager recipients of online orders they placed less than 30 minutes ago will race out to collect their bounty. The time has arrived. Online commerce has reached critical mass.

Amazon Drone

One need look no further than Amazon Prime Air to realize that online buying is being cemented as the norm for American consumers. Not only is there seemingly no end to what you can purchase online, legal or not-so-legal, but we’re engineering ways to receive our online orders via unmanned drones in 30. DAMN. MINUTES.

So naturally, this is just another step towards the American consumer making every purchase in their life online, right? The trends indicate that traditional brick and mortar is doomed as every purchase will occur with a click, rather than at a check-stand, right? The need to interact with other humans in any economic capacity will be a thing of the past, correct?

Empty Lot
Maybe not so fast. Despite our efforts towards engineering a world where you never need to leave home to make and receive a purchase, there are still several categories in which consumers remain wary of buying a product online. These are consumer products where a good price and a high-resolution set of photos are not enough to seal the deal. These are products where the tactile experience, getting to touch, hold and feel, is the deal breaker. Athletic shoes, musical instruments, furniture, jewelry, eyeglasses. Products that directly affect how you look and feel and how comfortable or uncomfortable you are. These are also typically high-ticket items that come with a certain sense of commitment, that you’ll spend a significant portion of your life with. Yes, these are products readily available online but also products that many consumers will tell you they would “never purchase online”. So does that mean products in these categories, where the feel is just as important as the price, will always be an in-person, in-store purchase? Or does this mean that marketers simply haven’t found the right way to sell these types of products online? There is likely some truth to both, so let’s take a look at effective ways to tackle the “no-touching” problem.

Create digital experiences that go beyond buyer & seller

When the product is expensive, the feel is important and the consumer is going to spend quite a while with it, it’s going to take a lot more than a competitive price and a shiny photo to make an online purchase happen. The buying process is going to be longer and require some convincing and relationship building, where every interaction with the consumer works to build trust, credibility and eventually a significant purchase.

One company that does an excellent job of creating digital experiences for their customers is Guitar Center, specifically through their Music Mentor Series. While Guitar Center has an obvious bottom-line goal of getting you to purchase instruments and equipment, the Music Mentor Series offers a variety of free online live workshops for all levels of musicians to “learn about the instruments and gear they’ll use to make the music they love.” Rather than simply asking you to buy a guitar, they’re giving you a free opportunity to learn how to play one, without having to leave your laptop. This helps establish Guitar Center as much more than a place to buy instruments, but as a resource to learn how to play, care for, and record your music. This creates a unique experience for several buyer segments, not only based on skill level but on the unique musical interest of an audience.

Beyond the Music Mentor Series, Guitar Center offers access to live performances, podcasts, and competitions. This gives them the ability to promote these unique, exclusive features and resources through their digital marketing channels like email and social, right alongside retail messaging to shop and buy your music gear.

Guitar Center Exert

Creating digital experiences that seamlessly and naturally integrate the gear they’re looking to sell allows Guitar Center to interact with their target consumer in a much more meaningful way than simply buyer and seller. Each interaction, whether it’s an attempt to sell or not, further establishes the relationship, credibility and trust necessary for a customer to make a high-dollar purchase, even if they’re not able touch and feel what they’re buying.

Remove the fear of commitment

It’s not hard to not only find shoes and apparel online, but to find it all on the cheap. The concern lies in the fear that without trying it on, you don’t know for sure that it will fit and feel like and you’ll either be stuck with your purchase or you’ll have to jump through hoops and lose money to return it. In the case of athletic shoes and apparel, where your potential purchase has a very physical affect on your game, the concern is much deeper.

Running shoes

Enter the Zappos model.

“Unlike many other web sites that have special rules and lots of fine print, Zappos.com offers free shipping on all domestic orders placed on our website, with no minimum order sizes or special exceptions.”

“We believe that in order to have the best possible online shopping experience, our customers should not have to pay for domestic return shipping.”

“With Zappos Retail, Inc.’s 365 day return policy, there are no special catches or exceptions.”

Seems simple enough, right? Making the return process as simple and streamlined as the purchase process itself addresses uncertainty and apprehension head on, recognizing that your inability to feel and try the product means it may not be right for you. In the case of Zappos, this acknowledgement isn’t buried in the fine print of their website either. Their buyer-friendly return policy is clearly stated throughout the site and has become a well-known core tenant of the company itself. Everyone knows Zappos is easy to buy from, easy to make returns and always available for customer service. Customers are even willing to pay the slightly higher prices typically found on Zappos for this peace of mind. In this case, the fact that your new shoes might not fit quite right is far less likely to stop you from buying them online.

Personalize the Experience

How’s it going to look? No, how’s it REALLY going to look? As in, on me. Specifically. If you want me to buy, that’s what I want to know. This is not an uncommon buyer mentality, especially for goods that have a big impact on what you look like, and how you think you’ll be perceived by others, such as clothing, glasses and jewelry. Often times it takes a few tries and plenty of looks in the mirror before you can land on the right look and seeing it on someone else is seldom if ever going to get you to commit, make the purchase and hope for the best.

Changing Rooms

Good news. It’s 2014. You no longer need a showroom, fitting room or even a mirror to see how a product is going to look on you. Several companies are creatively using websites and apps to allow a user to virtually and instantly “try on” a product simply by snapping a photo of themselves. Through your webcam or smartphone, you can instantly upload your photo and position clothing, accessories, sunglasses and even hairstyles and get a “not-quite-real-life” look at yourself. Try out new prescription specs with the new app from glasses.com. Or go classic with Ray-Bans virtual mirror. If you’re on the market for makeup, give yourself a virtual makeover from Lancome. Entire companies, like fit.me, are even being created with the sole purpose of developing a “virtual dressing room” for traditional retailers.

Using technology to allow already time-starved users to virtually try on a product on their own time, then allowing for a seamless, easy purchase (friendly return policy? even better!) without ever having to visit a store is a big win for online retailers and the skeptical online buyer.

Online commerce is hardly in need of any help to continue growing at staggering levels. Beyond simply an economic trend, the ease and convenience of buying nearly anything online and the technology supporting those habits is changing and evolving our entire lifestyle. The goods and products consumers are willing to buy online and are easily able to find continues to grow. Through more thoughtful marketing strategies that take advantage of evolving technology, even those goods that traditionally need to be felt, touched and tried are finding a larger and larger market online. Who knows, one click and helicopter drones are landing in your driveway 30-minutes later with your new running shoes, sunglasses or that sweet ukulele you’ve been wanting to learn to play. It’s not that unlikely and it’s not that far away.

Matt Popkes
Matt Popkes, VP of Strategy at eROI.