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 Shoppers Want More Customer Reviews

November 12, 2007
By Joan Voight


SAN FRANCISCO Consumers are turning to customer reviews on marketers’ Web sites regularly as they narrow their purchase choices, and they want to see those reviews for a wider range of products, particularly toys and specialty foods.

Those are among the findings of the 2007 “Social Shopping Study” of online consumers conducted in September, after a summer of toy recalls and food safety problems, and released today.

“When parents and others have concerns about the quality of the products they are buying, they are more likely to pay attention to recommendations by other shoppers like themselves,” said Jay Shaffer, vp, marketing at PowerReviews, the customer reviews agency that conducted the study in partnership with E-Tail Group. He said in many cases the content of customers’ reviews has focused more strongly on safety ratings and health issues in recent months.

The online “Social Shopping Study” found two-thirds of regular e-shoppers almost always seek out customer reviews before making a purchase decision. Most of that group of “social researchers,” as the report calls them, research products online no matter where they buy the product—whether a store, Web site, catalog or elsewhere.

In a wake-up call to brick-and-mortar stores gearing up for the holiday season, the survey also shows that 82 percent of the social researchers said they found reading reviews better than researching a product with a knowledgeable sales associate in a store.

Customer reviews on the e-commerce sites of national brands began gathering steam in mid-2007 as more brands overcame their fear of giving consumers a platform for negative comments about their products. This strategy is primarily used by electronics companies, such as Toshiba, Dell and Hewlett-Packard, and specialty clothing companies, such as Fair Indigo and Eastern Mountain Sports.

Since then, various studies, including the “Social Commerce Report” conducted by Bazaarvoice and E-consultancy in June and July, have shown that online customer product reviews increased e-commerce orders and site traffic. As a result, brands such as Wal-Mart, Toys R Us and REI have hopped on the customer review bandwagon.

The “Social Shopping Study” takes those surveys a step further by outlining which specific categories customers want to see feature more customer ratings and reviews. Almost 70 percent of the survey respondents said they would find reviews very helpful on sites selling toys and videogames, and about 55 percent said they wanted reviews on sporting goods, gifts and specialty foods sites.

The survey polled 1,200 consumers who shop online at least four times per year and spend $500 or more annually on their online purchases.

Among the specialty food and beverage brands ahead of the curve is Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, which launched a review system on its e-commerce site in August 2006 and has gotten about 1,000 reviews, according to Ken Crites, director of the company’s consumer-direct division. “We find the marketing content and feedback way more valuable than the quantity of reviews. We are using some of the quotes in our print catalogs and asking some reviewers to send us pictures of themselves with the product,” he said.

“When we review what new products to launch or how to improve certain products, we look at the online reviews every time,” Crites said.

As part of its customer review form, Green Mountain asks reviewers to click on the term that describes them: “chef,” “foodie,” “frequent diner” or “simple tastes.” It also allows them to write in their own description. In a sign of shifting customer values, so many reviewers described themselves as “health conscious” in the last year that the site has added that description to the list, said Shaffer, whose agency worked on the site.

Some companies are turning one-way user feedback into a two-way dialogue by publicly responding to reviews. Eastern Mountain Sports often posts a response to complaints by reviewers right next to the negative review. “Not only can a reply to a user review improve that customer’s experience, but others will see this genuine dialogue and be more likely to stick around,” said CMO Scott Barrett. In some cases the negative reviewers are also sent another product to replace the undesirable one, he added.

In other survey findings, many people said they shop seamlessly back and forth between physical stores and Web sites, and they do not examine customer reviews until midway through the shopping process. Most of the respondents said they start their shopping process at retail stores and then seek out online reviews as they near their final choices, looking at the reviews of only a handful of possible purchases. Specifically, 81 percent use customer reviews to decide between two or three products or to confirm that their final selection is the right one and only 40 percent actually start the shopping process using reviews, according to the study.

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