Offering customers something special in all three phases of the purchasing cycle—before, during and after the sale—is an approach all online retailers can learn from Amazon while developing their own distinctive offers.

Benjamin Wall, author of "Amazon: Managing Extraordinary Success in 5-D Value"

Benjamin Wall, author of “Amazon: Managing Extraordinary Success in 5-D Value”

Online stores need to offer customers benefits in all three phases of the purchasing cycle: before, during, and after shopping. Amazon’s market-leading offers in each phase explain its tremendous success.

But there is no need for other retailers to despair. This article presents many alternatives to Amazon’s offers, which can be successful, so long as the ecommerce retailer covers the entire purchasing cycle.

Before shopping, a customer intends to purchase and will respond to a generalized convincing offer as a private consumer. In Amazon’s case, the offer to the consumer from its mighty supply chain and logistics is the lowest prices for the widest range of products, delivered fastest and cheapest. These “est” offers are attractive to customers who think as a consumer want to order and receive under the (b)est conditions, where Amazon has the market-leading offer.

What can other ecommerce retailers offer to their customers as alternatives in this first phase addressing “the consumer?” There are five additional kinds of basic offers to consumers from ecommerce retailers. Using other large online retailers as examples, illustrates the point.

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  1. Certain consumer segments are attracted to premium products, as practiced by Apple.
  2. All-around benefits from products established as solidly reflecting market standards, such as Costco’s private label brand Kirkland Signature, offer consumers a quality that is assuring.
  3. Bargain hunting, special deals, one-off offers, and intriguingly unique product sets and combinations, as found at Wayfair, can whet the consumer’s appetite for singular opportunities.
  4. Products marketed as enriching enhancements to the consumer’s lifestyle, the leading strength of Macy’s, stimulate customers’ emotions.
  5. An emerging offer is to speak to the customer’s desire to be an environmentally friendly consumer, e.g., Everlane’s promise of radical transparency in sustainability initiatives, ethical production and “The More-Sustainable Collection.”

Even the smallest ecommerce retailer can promote itself to “the consumer,” along with one or more of these lines.

Going back to the supply chain and logistics, many Amazon competitors use physical locations—either their own or those of an ally— for a different kind of delivery service that allows the customer to pick up the product. Amazon, of course, also offers this option in certain areas. The pick-up location is almost always a store or near a shopping district; the customer often combines the pick-up with a store visit. In this case, the pick-up service merges into the second phase in the purchasing cycle: the shopping itself.

During the online phase in the purchasing cycle, the Amazon website offers “the shopper” convenience and efficiency, even stimulation, by pointing out alternatives and options new to the shopper. Hitting only the most prominent shopping features on Amazon, leading navigation and search functionality, give access to the widest product range. The personalization functionality provides each visitor with a customized screen experience showing their history plus alternative items, accessories, “New for you,” “More items to consider,” and “Recommendations for you.” Ordering functionality on smart devices such as the Kindle reader and the Electra software on the smart speaker Echo extend shopping at Amazon into the offline world. There are many options for payment, including the possibility of donations to charities. Without going into the many other precedent-setting features of shopping at Amazon, let us sum it up as leading in the “doing” of shopping: Amazon tremendously supports shoppers in conducting their steps.

Here again, there are five generic alternatives for online retailers.

  1. Apple offers the shopper a sense of elevated status while online. It uses a noble font, luxurious colors, refined photos of the products—often with elegant persons—and navigation that leads the shopper effortlessly to the purchase like a cultivated salesperson who graciously accompanies the shopper to the cash register.
  2. Walmart persistently exhorts the visitor to take advantage of the value for money it offers.
  3. Home Depot shoppers on the website always know where they stand, using well-structured navigation, logical categories of products and types of offers, rational information and clear payment terms.
  4. The Target website invites visitors to an emotional online experience. allowing them to imagine how the products can enliven their lives. E.g., the categories Ideas, Spotlight and Fun Stuff wake sentiments in the visitor by presenting products in lifestyle contexts.
  5. IKEA explains the individual environmental benefits of specific products. For example, the designer of a bamboo lamp explains how it reduces material waste in producing the product while highlighting bamboo’s benefits as a material.

Reflecting on all six kinds of benefits for “the shopper,” all ecommerce retailers can develop their visitor’s online experience in one or more of these ways.

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After shopping, the customer is, in effect, an end-user who takes delivery of the product and consumes it. Amazon offers to “the end-user” all-around benefits which represent market-leading standards in after-sales support and in forming expectations about the product. The call center works to the highest standards in responding to customer queries and complaints, and Amazon is very generous when it comes to replacing damaged or malfunctioning goods. The retailer forms expectations about the product via product information and, more importantly, customer reviews. Amazon takes pains to present detailed information on products, sometimes combining the best information from different suppliers of the same product. However, the masterstroke is the inclusion of the revealing reviews from customers about product features, which other customers trust and rely on far more than product information from the retailer. Amazon has numerous techniques to generate useful reviews from customers, so that other customers understand what they will be getting from a given product. There should be no surprises when they open the package and start to use it. The comprehensive benefits gained as end-users after shopping clinch the satisfying experience for Amazon customers throughout the entire purchasing cycle.

There are five further kinds of basic offers to align the expectations of “the end-user” with the actual benefits of given products.

  1. John Lewis, the U.K.’s staid premium retailer, offers buying guides so customers will purchase the cultivated products that fit their cultured way of life as end-users.
  2. Walmart gives its suppliers, who know the product better than anyone else, the stage to explain how a given product boosts the standard of living of the end-user. It supplements supplier information with customer reviews ranked by their helpfulness as a positive or negative review.
  3. Express interacts with customers in several ways to gather and highlight how customers express its fashion’s versatility in everyday situations: e.g., Express Together and Express Life. 
  4. In addition to customer reviews, Target shows the subsection #Target Style, where customers upload photos of themselves wearing Target clothes or their home with Target furniture or other items. The wide-ranging photos illustrate how consumers can consume products curated by Target for lifestyle to bring out their individual tastes.
  5. IKEA offers several product guides with details of hundreds of products for a more sustainable life. That way, the usefulness of each environmentally friendly product in the household—and its benefits—are clear.

This article presents six basic offers in each phase of the purchasing cycle as guideposts for ecommerce retailers. By keeping to these guideposts, ecommerce retailers can structure their offers to be distinctive in each phase while comprehensively covering the entire purchasing cycle.

Benjamin Wall is the author of “Amazon: Managing Extraordinary Success in 5-D Value.”

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