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Mar 18, 2009
Case Study

How to Implement Ask-and-Answer Section to Cut Returns 23%, Lift Conversions

SUMMARY: When shopping online, people usually have questions. Sometimes, the website addresses their concerns. However, often -- due to lack of information -- buyers end up with the wrong product. In the worst-case scenario, they leave and never return.

Find out how an ecommerce site with a large complicated product catalog answered shoppers’ questions, resulting in a more at-ease purchasing experience, increased conversion rates and decreased returns.

Geoffrey Robertson, VP Ecommerce & Technology, Whitney Automotive Group, manages around 250,000 “items” categorized into 13,000 or so products. About 80% of the direct-to-consumer automotive part-and-accessory retailer’s sales are through its website.

“One of our greatest challenges is that we carry hundreds of thousands of different items…We also have the added complexity that each one of those things needs to fit a specific make, model, and year of a vehicle. And so we have to fit over 24 million different make-model-year combinations,” Robertson says.

The vast array of products and cars can confuse shoppers. To make them more comfortable, Robertson wanted to add more information to the product pages. Ideally, the extra info would make shoppers more likely to purchase and less likely to return an order.

Since hiring staff to create content for so many products would be expensive, Robertson and his team wanted to add the content without having to create every bit of it themselves.


The team added an “ask and answer” section to every product page in June 2007. Shoppers could post questions about a product and have them answered by other shoppers, members of Robertson’s team or vendors. They could also see questions and answers from previous shoppers.

Step #1: Build the tool

The JC Whitney website already had a successful ratings and reviews section for every product page. The question and answer section was an extension of that community-driven content and would rely on shopper input.

“Our ratings and reviews are definitely seen as a conversion tool. The ask-and-answer is more for when you’re in the throes of the purchase decision. That’s when the information is most meaningful,” Robertson says.

Using the new service, shoppers could:
-Ask and answer questions
-Rate questions and answers (thumbs up or down)
-Search and sort them
-Upload photos
-Report posts as abusive or spam
-View a member’s profile and questions, reviews, etc.

A product’s questions are listed similarly to a community forum. The most active members are identified with a “top 100” or “top 1000” contributor badge. Staff members and product experts are also given badges.

Step #2: Add the tool to product pages

Manually adding this feature to 13,000 product pages would have been an enormous chore. Robertson’s team was able add the tool’s code to their product-page template, automatically placing it on all of the pages.

Although the team did not explain the new service to shoppers, it has not created much confusion. This could be due to either the shoppers’ prior experience with the site’s ratings and reviews, or the intuitive nature of the new service.

Step #3: Expect a flood of questions

Shoppers have a lot of “pent-up demand” for their questions to be answered, Robertson says. The questions can come pouring in once shoppers are able to ask them freely.

“When we first put it up, we had over 10,000 questions within the first two weeks. We just got flooded, and so what we needed to do was to put together a crack team and just start answering,” Robertson says.

In the beginning, Robertson’s team did not see many answers provided by the community. The team jumpstarted the process by having product specialists provide answers. After the initial wave of questions, the team had two members committed to answering about 200 questions a week.

Now, about 70% of the answers come from JC Whitney’s staff, and the rest come from the community and vendors. Robertson expects that percentage to come down as the team promotes the service more in the future. “Anything that’s community driven takes time,” he says.

Few people will know a product better than its manufacturer’s vendors. Robertson has worked with several vendors to ask them to contribute their expertise to the question-and-answer service. This saves Robertson’s team time and gives them confidence that shoppers’ questions are being answered correctly.

Step #4: Monitor content

The Internet is a huge barrel with some bad apples. You should always monitor user-generated content that is hosted on your site. A few red flags to look for:
- Abusive language
- Brand bashing
- Incorrect or dangerous advice
- Spam - including people providing no value while linking to their website

Robertson’s team has people, not just software, committed to monitoring the content. This is important because a computer can be easier to fool than a person. Also, the forum allows for image posting, and a person needs to look at the images to ensure that they are appropriate.

Step #5: Promote

The team mentions the service in emails to its house list about once a month. They also mention the site’s ratings and reviews, which are on the same page as the questions, every two weeks or so. Robertson plans to promote the service more heavily in the future.


“We’re seeing phenomenal improvements on the return rates for the product where there were questions and answers from the community,” Robertson says. “That’s phenomenal for our profit and loss statements because every dollar saved from returns is a dollar to our profit line. So, that aspect of the program has paid for itself several fold.”

Return rates:
o 80% of the products with answers had improved return rates
o 23% to 25% average improvement on return rates
o Critical mass: products with 15 or more answers have return-rate improvements between 16% and 54%

Conversion rates:
o 6% to 7.5% average increase in conversion rate for products with questions and answers

“Then what’s nice is that this content lives forever. Once it’s answered, the number of repeat questions declines,” Robertson says. “For those particular kinds of questions, we’ve definitely seen call volume [to customer service] go down.”

Note: Not a huge interaction

About 2% of JC Whitney’s audience (names in their customer file) participates in the social parts of the site. That number would be low for a content-oriented site, but this is an ecommerce site. That small audience was enough to move JC Whitney’s numbers in the right direction.

Useful Links Related to This Article

Ask-and-Answer Feature: Creative Samples

Adding Customer Reviews Increases Conversions -- Dramatically

Data on How User Reviews Influence Purchasing Decisions

Bazaarvoice: Provided ‘Ask & Answer’ service

JC Whitney

See Also:

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