How Retailers Earn 5-Star Reviews

Tags: Retail, Customer Service, Retail Logistics

The human touch, product education, smooth delivery, sturdy packaging, and good cup of coffee help retailers rate high with customers.

Speed is a given in retail these days. Consumers want their products right away (if not sooner), and leading retailers all seem to be trying to set fulfillment records. Whether they're shipping to customers at home, providing in-store pickup for online orders, or stocking physical shelves for in-person shopping, merchants can no longer rely on near-instant gratification to make them stand out from the crowd.

That's why many companies today use outstanding customer service to win attention, customer loyalty, five-star reviews, and more sales.

For some born-digital retailers, that might mean following the lead of Amazon, Zappos, and others into the brick-and-mortar realm to offer more personal service. As these e-commerce leaders show with their forays into in-person shopping, brick-and-mortar is not dead.

"Humans want connections, with people as well as with products and sensory experiences," says Alice Fournier, the Norwalk, Connecticut-based vice president of e-commerce and digital at London-based Kantar Consulting. Besides getting up close and personal, e-commerce merchants also open physical locations so they can provide in-store pickup, plus services aligned with their products.

Some retailers that operate traditional stores are adopting a similar model, opening brick-and-mortar locations devoted exclusively to service. Fournier points to Nordstrom's new Nordstrom Local outlets in California, which offer e-commerce pickup, returns, and exchanges, plus alterations, shoe repair, a chance to work with a stylist, and more—but carry no inventory.

Whether consumers come to a store to browse the merchandise, pick up the items they ordered online, or get expert advice on what to buy next, retailers that delight customers in brick-and-mortar stores excel in three areas: convenience, a great experience, and service. "Shoppers are looking to do as many of the things they need to do as possible in a given space," Fournier says. For example, many larger retailers now offer health and wellness services. A big box store might provide flu shots and eye care; a shoe store might serve hydration needs by handing out bottled water.

Coffee and Comfort

Among retailers that emphasize experience, Will Leather Goods is a standout. Each of the company's eight stores—in Houston and Austin, Texas; Portland and Eugene, Oregon; Venice, California; Denver; San Francisco; and Detroit—highlights the beauty of a restored building.

Natural wood, original cement, and other attractive features complement fine leatherwork, says Shane Adler, brand director at Will Leather Goods, which is headquartered in Eugene. So does another important element of the Will Leather experience: coffee. Walk into Will Leather Goods and you'll be offered a cup of fresh espresso. The Detroit store features a full-service coffee shop where guests can get at least one cup on the house.

Staff encourage visitors to sit down with their coffee and hang out in the store as long as they like. "Because we sell a higher-end product, it's not always about buying the first time. There are a lot of stories to explore and things to smell," Adler says. "Customers have to pick up everything and see what is hidden."

Reaching Out Online

Of course, Will Leather can't serve either coffee or a multi-sensory experience to customers who buy online. "It's hard. How do you smell the leather through the website?" Adler says. The company compensates with high-touch customer service. For example, if a customer wants an item that isn't currently available through the e-commerce channel, a customer service representative will connect that customer with a store that has the item in stock.

The customer service team also makes phone calls to customers who leave reviews online. "If it's a five-star review, they'll get a response from us," Adler says. "If it's a two-star review, they'll certainly get a response from us so we can figure out and resolve the issue."

For example, one customer recently posted a review that said a belt purchased from Will Leather was peeling. "Our belts don't peel," Adler says. Most likely, the customer just needed to learn the right way to condition the leather. The customer service team was ready to oblige. "We can turn a two-star review into a five-star review because of our service and education," she says.

Both online and in its stores, Will Leather uses education, plus a lifetime guarantee on all products, to keep customers happy and loyal. "Leather is an ever-evolving material that dries out, ages, and can stretch," Adler says. "We can help customers take care of it by teaching them about oiling, conditioning, and cleaning the product."

Handle With Care

Despite the appeal of touching and trying, the success of e-commerce proves that plenty of customers will commit to products they have experienced only on a website. But when the product is a major item—say, a washing machine or a big-screen TV—e-commerce requires a leap of faith. That makes outstanding customer service all the more important.

Nashville-based Electronic Express sells a wide variety of consumer electronics, furniture, appliances, and other products through its 16 retail locations in Tennessee and Alabama. But in its e-commerce channel, the big sellers are TVs. A while ago, Electronic Express was having trouble shipping some of those TVs to customers.

"TVs are very fragile," says Gregory Rohan, director of marketplace sales and operations at Electronic Express. In the past, when the company sold TVs through its website, or through Amazon, eBay, and other marketplaces, 3 to 4 percent of them arrived with some kind of damage.

A damage claim is a customer service problem. "We have to apologize, tell customers that obviously we will take care of it and send a replacement TV," Rohan says. "But they will wait another seven or eight days to have another TV shipped."

Rohan attributed the damage to the use of traditional less-than-truckload (LTL) networks to ship the TVs. "The shipments would move from dock to dock," he says. "Every touch created a chance of something happening."

Not only did it cost money to resolve claims, but damaged products created a poor experience, and some customers mentioned the problem in online comments. The service issue also hurt relationships with some e-commerce marketplaces.

"E-commerce companies hold us to specific metrics so we can maintain our standard as a highly respected seller on their platforms," Rohan says. "The order defect rate (ODR) is one of those metrics."

In early 2018, Electronic Express started using a new solution to ship TVs. Called Airfreight + Final Mile, the solution from Seko Logistics in Itasca, Illinois, combines air cargo transportation with ground delivery to get larger, bulkier items to customers in two or three days.

Seko developed Airfreight + Final Mile largely to help e-commerce merchants deliver bulky items quickly, without opening numerous fulfillment centers. But the solution also addresses service issues that don't apply to small packages.

White-Glove Service

Bulky items require white-glove delivery, says Rick Lee, chief operating officer at Seko. "It might involve the extra touch of a phone call or an electronic communication to confirm a timely appointment."

Electronic Express chose the Seko service largely because it reduces the number of transfers a TV goes through on its journey from the distribution center (DC) in Nashville to the customer. Instead of moving through a network of LTL terminals, the TVs now travel from the DC to nearby Nashville International Airport, to an airport and Seko hub in the customer's region, and then to the customer.

Besides using air transportation to simplify a large product's journey, Seko limits damage by working with merchants on packaging. "We've reduced the number of claims being filed over the past three years by 50 percent," Lee says.

Electronic Express has reduced its own damage claims for TVs since it started using Airfreight + Final Mile, and that improvement translates into better online reviews, Rohan says. That's an important benefit for e-commerce sales.

"How do you satisfy a customer who wants to buy a 40-inch TV and is unsure about going online, versus buying it in a store?" Rohan asks. Online feedback plays a big role. "We want them to see nothing but positive experiences," he adds.

Chilled, Fresh, and Friendly

At 5 a.m., six days a week, a driver arrives at a facility in Falls Church, Virginia, to pick up bottles of freshly squeezed juices with names such as Wake Me Up, Detox, and Glow. Each juice brims with nutrients. But the product can lose its value over time, and if not kept cold and handled correctly, it may spoil.

"Getting it to the customer is critical," says Rob Yealu, director of operations at juice and nutrition company JRINK. For this company, customer service is inextricably bound up with reliability and speed.

JRINK sells its juices, plus a line of plant-based "farmaceuticals" called Apothékary, from seven retail shops in and around Washington, D.C. It also sells the fresh juices online, with deliveries within a 25- to 30-mile radius of Falls Church. Since 2016, it has relied on a company called DeliveryCircle to keep those juices cold and fresh while delivering them on schedule to customers.

Based in Newark, Delaware, DeliveryCircle uses small courier companies and independent drivers to make local deliveries for retailers. "The retailers use us because they get a consistent model," says Vijaya Rao, DeliveryCircle's chief executive officer. That model blends the on-demand, just-in-time service one gets from a company such as Uber with the solid logistics platform one would get with UPS or FedEx, she explains.

JRINK takes orders for juices, sold singly or in kits, through its e-commerce site. It collects those orders in its own internal management system and uploads the data to DeliveryCircle. Then DeliveryCircle takes over.

"DeliveryCircle makes sure that on every delivery, they contact the customer in whichever way the customer prefers," Yealu says. Customers choose one of two delivery windows, 6 to 8:30 a.m. or 9 a.m. to noon. "It' critical that the juices get there on time," he says. "People create their schedules around our product."

Dedicated Driver

To keep the juice moving and the customers happy, DeliveryCircle has assigned JRINK a single driver, who makes sure the product stays cold throughout the ride and arrives on schedule. The driver builds good relationships with customers, and serves as a conduit for communications. "If there's something wrong on our end, or if there's an issue with the consumer, the driver reaches out immediately and follows up," Yealu says.

All DeliveryCircle customers get dedicated drivers or, if the need is larger, pools of drivers, Rao says. Some drivers have specific training; for example, those who deliver automotive parts or do deliveries for medical facilities earn hazardous materials certification. Also, business owners rate their drivers on performance. "We constantly look for four- or five-star drivers for a business," she says.

Having a dedicated driver helps JRINK provide excellent customer service, says Yealu. "It's about building relationships, creating that feedback loop, making sure the customer knows that not only will the product be delivered, but the delivery service will remain consistent."

Whether the product is a bottle of cold-pressed beet-carrot-orange-apple blend, a leather tote, or a smart TV, customers want to be delighted from the moment they make the purchase until they take the first sip, fill the bag with their belongings, or settle in to binge a favorite series. Retailers and their logistics partners keep finding innovative, five-star ways to make their customers' dreams come true.






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