Product information in the retail customer experience

As shoppers, we're all used to easy access to heaps of product information, right? From washing machines to wedding rings, just google the item you're looking for, and dozens of online retailers will come to your aid. Not to mention review sites, a few savvy manufacturer sites, blogs, twitter feeds, what's the problem? But how much of this data is what customers actually want? Can shoppers trust it, or even use it to help them narrow their choice, the way they want to?

In recent weeks, we've been running a number of customer interviews to explore what information they really value, and the results have been intriguing. For example, with recession-conscious shoppers, we've heard a desire for full visibility of price history of an item, alongside today's price. Customers said that it would help them figure out, especially for a larger planned purchase, whether now is really the right time to buy, whether they can get or beat the lowest price, rather than today's price? How many retailers provide this?

If this price history issue is about transparency, then we've found a supporting theme. A number of customers felt it would be useful to upload their own data, beyond just product reviews. "How many [retailer] websites allow me to upload my own images of a product, showing real-life wear and tear after a period of time? Not many."

Is such visual product information valuable to would-be buyers? Our research suggests so, finding that customers would perceive user photos at least as valuable alongside the glossy brochure photos that manufacturers provide.

We also discussed choosing a hotel online with potential travellers. Many of them visited review sites like tripadvisor or laterooms, and whilst the review ratings were valued, some of the information was felt to be too structured into categories such as 'family' or 'business' - labels which were considered as "subjective and unclear".

Travellers were also aware that many of the amenity descriptions were provided by the hotels themselves ("I've been to hotels that claim to have an 'on-site gym', only to find a couple of antique treadmills in a converted basement meeting room!")

So, if transparency and structure are issues important to customers, this raises challenges in how retailers should respond. Exactly what data should they be listing on their websites? How consistent does it need to be? A customer may want to know where a fresh food item is sourced from, down to the farm that grew it, but is such information important for the provenance of the wood in a £15 bookshelf?

The more we've explored the issue of retail product information, the more it's become clear that this is a complex but undervalued component of the customer experience. Product information is now essential to a customer's assessment of an item in a multichannel world, especially where many channels are direct, making shoppers reliant on data to substitute for a real world experience of seeing and touching the product.

Yet its still the case that much of the "meta-data" that's associated with a product is collected for the benefit of the supply chain, or in the interests of the supplier, rather than the customer (i.e. It's needed for buying teams, warehousing, stock control, delivery, management reporting and so on). It's easy to see why standardising such data makes sense for a retailer, in terms of systems and management. But our own research suggests that much of this meta-data, along with additional information, would offer more value to the consumer if it could be rolled up as well as drilled down. For example, a 'green' or sustainable icon can represent a lifestyle choice for a customer. A simple logo can help to quickly filter these products, whilst a drill down facility can provide further evidence for those that require it.

The trouble is that getting hold of this degree of meta-data consistently is very hard, as evidenced by Walmart's Sustainability Consortium - a laudable project trying (and largely failing) to capture all the environmental and social data for every product sold in its stores.

In practice, the sheer cost for provision of meta-data that is both transparent and flexible is, at best, likely to be a something available for new items, rather than added retrospectively for existing ranges. And we'd suggest that its provision targets certain data fields within specific categories, rather than generically across the whole product range.

Our belief is that universal provision of standard product information has never really worked in the past, and it should not be a goal for the future. Instead, the first objective should be to gain sufficient insight from customers about what information they really need and why from different product categories. Only then should businesses set about capturing this product information from suppliers, 3rd parties, and customers themselves, making it as seamless and consistent as possible across all channels.


In writing this article, we're grateful to the presenters and delegates of a recent breakfast briefing organised by the Ivis Group, whose discussion greatly contributed to the above.