As you may recall, last June we published a Case Study on BackcountryStore.com entitled, "eretailer Uses Metrics to Grow Sales More Than 100% Year After Year" (link below). Since then, the marketing team have continued to test new tactics and agreed to share their results with us today.CHALLENGE
John Bresee, Co-Founder BackcountryStore.com an online-mostly retailer, worries most about the grizzled guy at the back of competitor's brick and mortar stores, the guy who can tell customers which sleeping bag best suits their needs.
Matching that level of customer communication online is the key to raising Bresee's sleeping bag and other outdoor gear sales.
Instead of saying, 'How do we keep down customer service and communication costs?' BackcountryStore.com's management team asks, 'How can we improve communication to boost conversion rates?'
Bresee's proposed answer: "The way to get high conversion is to be absolutely right in front of your customer." Which is easy if you are a physical store, but what about web-based business?CAMPAIGN
When they moved to a new dynamic website platform in October, 2002, the BackcountryStore.com team took the opportunity to introduce 9 new customer communication and conversion tactics:
Tactic #1: Product reviews by customers
Anyone can register at the site and post a product review and rating. BackcountryStore.com edits submissions for typos, and rejects any comments offering nothing of value to customers. Bresee explains, "You do get a lot of reviews like 'THIS ROOLZ!', and that's it."
What the store does not do is reject *negative* reviews.
Bresee explains, "If you show positive reviews without negative, people don't trust the source. It was more important that we have editorial integrity so that customers really look at us as a source of valid information than it was for us to protect a product."
The team also uses negative reviews as feedback on what products should and should not be stocked in future. If a product is getting hammered by visitors, it is time to take a fresh look at inventory choice.
At launch, though, Bresee's greatest fear was that nobody would submit reviews, which would make the feature look a little lame. He also worried that reviews would be too polarized to be useful (people tend to only submit opinions online when they are very pleased or very angry).
Tactic #2: Product comparisons
Category product lists let visitors tick off up to four products and get a side-by-side comparison of features on a single page.
The comparison idea came from employees: All outdoor enthusiasts, who wanted the function both for themselves and to help customer service people better understand unfamiliar product groups.
Tactic #3: Bestseller lists
The team added overall and category-specific bestseller lists to the right-hand side of product listings. (Note: This is a feature we have seen from almost every single profitable e-retailer we have profiled. If you do not have best-sellers listed on your site now, you should strongly consider adding them.)
Tactic #4: In-house copy-written product descriptions
Unlike many eretailers, BackcountryStore.com's team writes its own SKU descriptions rather than relying solely on the blurbs that manufacturers provide.
The content and style mirror the Company's customer orientation and position as a source of unbiased expertise. (In fact, their Content Manager has a Harvard degree in linguistics.)
Bresee explains, "We're fanatical about that. It's making sure it's fitting with our tone. Speaking in a way that a customer would with a gear expert at a specialty store. So we can have the same information they would be able to get from the clerk, in an offline store."
Tactic #5: Real-time inventory display
All product listings include an indication of how many items are left in stock ("quantity on hand"). This is a real-time warehouse figure intended to add certainty to the transaction, making people more likely to buy if they know that what they order is definitely available.
Bresee admits they were a little nervous about offering that information on public display, but they hoped the conversion benefits would outweigh the CI risks.
Tactic #6: Larger images
Product pages already featured relatively large product images (typically 300x300 pixels), but the team added an option to click through to an even larger image at 440x440 pixels. With sporting goods and gear a touch/feel purchase, Bresee wanted people to be able to look at as much detail as possible.
Tactic #7: Additional feedback opportunity
At the bottom of each page there is a "What's wrong with this page?" link which leads people to a feedback form with the referring URL built into the subject line.
Bresee explains, "We were having people picking up the phone saying, 'this isn't working' or 'I question this' or whatever, so we just thought we'd let this community of visitors tell us what they disagree with in a product description, for example."
Tactic #8: Refer-a-friend function
Although evidence from elsewhere suggested the viral technique was on the wane, the team tested a refer-a-friend form on the right-hand side of each product page.
Tactic #9: Shopping cart enhancements
The team decided to let people order without registering. Bresee says this was a response to Shop.org's findings that around a third of shoppers cite forced registration as their No.1 complaint. He says, "For us it matters most to get that first order at the cost of everything else."
Additional cart enhancements included:
- A shipping calculator to display shipping costs *before* customers have to input any detailed order information.
- An enhanced inventory record, where the number still in stock is displayed in more detail; after the customer has selected a garment size and color, for example.
- Cart contents displayed on the righthand side of each normal page, so customers can always see what (and how much) they have "bought" so far.
These 9 tactics were built to integrate with existing core communication and conversion features.
Feature #1: Highly Skilled Customer Service Reps
The key qualification for all new customer service hires (known as 'Gear Experts') is an interest in outdoor gear.
Bresee says "It's a hard notion because you have to find fanatical outdoor people. And you need to find them on the day that they decide 'I don't need to be outdoors that much, I need a little more stability in my life.' If you hire them a day too early, they're restless and they can't make it, and if you wait too long they're in a career somewhere else."
The team uses local contacts, newspaper ads, and a homepage link to attract applicants.
Then they keep staff turnover rates unusually low by offering staff product discounts and flexible working hours to account for outdoor hobbies.
For example, there is an adventure sabbatical program where customer service employees can apply for unpaid time off to undertake a big adventure, such as trekking in Nepal.
The "gear fanatic" approach is reflected in the live help button which appears on every page, rather than feature a corporate clone on the button, it has a photo of bearded Backcountrystore Bob, the actual senior gear expert.
Bresee says, "Interestingly, within a couple of weeks one of our top competitors did the same thing."
Feature #2: Newsletter that is less salesy
The site newsletter is published twice a month, alternating between a content-based version, filled with useful articles written by the store's gear experts, and a sales version, featuring current deals. (See link below for a sample.)
Bresee says, "We're not using the newsletter as a primary sales driver. We're just using it as a tickler to say, 'Hey, we're still here'. We try and hold aggressive merchandising out of the content newsletter so it's really clear that this is something valuable."
Feature #3: Free shipping
The site charges nothing for shipping on orders over $50 for delivery to the lower 48 US States.
"That's what I loved about watching this Christmas season," says Bresee, "everyone went gaga over Amazon offering free shipping, and we've done it since 1996."
The company sees it as a pure marketing cost. As a full retail site, they have some leeway with margins, but it is still an expense that Bresee says gets discussed heavily at every annual review.
BackcountryStore.com's revenues grew 130% in 2002 and, since the installation of the new platform and features, the site's conversion rate has "almost doubled." The sales increases have already paid for the required investment costs.
More details on what works:
- Between 10 and 25 quality reviews are posted each day. Though this is a small proportion given the 20,000-30,000 daily visitors, it is enough to make the feature work. ("Which is a relief! What we are finding is that people are passionate enough and know enough that they are really talking about the gear.")
Now that sufficient reviews are online, the team is looking at ways of featuring them more prominently on product pages.
- The comparison function has been "very effective, it's our fifth best converting tool on the site."
- Larger images have proved hugely successful. Bresee says, "There's nothing else that we've done that has had a larger impact than offering 440x440 pixel pictures."
The Company now has a dedicated internal studio for product images.
- The impact of real-inventory figures also exceeded expectations. Bresee's own review of customer comments at BizRate.com shows it is second in importance only to the free shipping offer.
- The find-a-friend function, "is making sales for us every day. It surprised me but we keep seeing sales through it so we left it alone."
- Bresee's learned that bestseller lists work better when they help people pick something from a group of similar purchases. Anybody looking for a sleeping bag does not benefit much from a site-wide bestseller list showing sunglasses and water bottles as the popular buys.
Bresee adds, "The closer you get into a brand page where it's just similar products, the more that this converts."
- The sales newsletter gets click throughs (unique clicks as a proportion of total mails sent) of 6-11%.
Bresee says the revenue generated directly by the newsletter is great, and they have been surprised to find emails continuing to generate revenue months after they were sent (so make sure your newsletter links remain active).
He says, "It's successful enough that we're going to go after it aggressively this year and hope to quadruple our lists."
Product review sample:
Original (still fascinating) June 2002 Case Study: