In a digital world, online reviews are an increasingly important way for retailers to connect with their customers – building trust and responding to feedback to help shape their offers and grow their businesses.
Joan, 65, is shopping for a swimsuit. It’s February, and there isn’t much in stores on her local high street so she’s looking online instead. As she browses, she scrolls through other shoppers’ reviews, seeking feedback on fit and looking to make sure there will be no surprises if she purchases. Reassured by comments on the fit (“low neckline but good, adjustable neck straps”) and quality (“lasted me all holiday without sagging”), she adds an item to her basket. When her product arrives, it’s just as she expected, and she leaves her own review of her good experience.
Reassurance from reviews
For many retailers, online reviews of products are an important tool in helping convert shoppers from browsing to purchasing – building trust in brands and products alike. They can also act as a valuable customer touchpoint, allowing retailers to receive feedback from shoppers in a retail landscape that has minimised the face-to-face, daily conversations that bricks-and-mortar stores have facilitated in years gone by.
Such is the sway of reviews on buyers that the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has raised concerns over the number of fake reviews on sites such as Facebook and Ebay. These paid-for or false reviews, encouraged by unscrupulous sellers, convince shoppers to buy under false pretences.
Nevertheless, legitimate customer reviews provide crucial insight into what customers like and dislike about products and services, giving retailers information they need to improve their offers.
“They give our customers a platform to share their opinions and influence others,” says Ralph Percival, ecommerce director at Joules. “They also enable us to gather valuable insight through authentic and honest feedback, to help improve and refine our products for future seasons.”
Joules monitors feedback on products and services, making direct changes as a result. “We analyse the feedback closely to pick up on any negative, reoccurring, or common feedback, which is then shared with the relevant departments within the business to take forward,” explains Percival.
Reviews help customers to build a clearer picture of the product, says Jawad Farooq, ecommerce trading manager at Quiz. “The images, videos and opinions help our customers to understand the credibility of the product and brand, to support those who may be thinking of purchasing to actually move forward with their decision.”
There is strong evidence to suggest that product reviews are taken seriously by our shoppers – about 90% of our total sales in December 2019 were made from products with either a four or five rating
Paul Hayes, Seasalt
Cornish lifestyle brand Seasalt is another retailer that gathers large numbers of reviews from shoppers, and CEO Paul Hayes agrees that they are a useful tool in driving sales. “There is strong evidence to suggest that product reviews are taken seriously by shoppers browsing our website and that they are influenced by what other customers are saying,” he says. “About 90% of our total sales in December 2019 were made from products with either a four or five anchor rating [used in place of stars].
Hayes also says that the overall impact of engaging with reviews and building a relationship with shoppers helps to improve brand image, indirectly encouraging sales: “It’s not only helpful for our product development teams to receive first-hand feedback but for our customers to hear honest reviews when considering their next purchase with us.”
“Listening to our customers in as many ways as we can, understanding their needs and expectations, and translating them into excellent customer experiences is more critical to a brand’s success now than it has ever been.”
Tackling fake reviews
Of the retailers Drapers spoke to, most use external, third-party apps or plug-ins – such as Reviews.io and Bazaarvoice – to collect reviews online. The benefits of these are ease of use, in-built moderating functions and their efficacy in preventing fake reviews.
For sites such as Ebay and Facebook, the issue of fake reviews is something that stems from untrustworthy sellers – with some offering payment for posting falsely positive reviews online. Both sites are working to end this practice, with Facebook pledging to introduce more comprehensive systems to remove the reviews, and Ebay enhancing its tools to identify and block listings which sell online reviews.
For retailers legitimately collecting reviews, in-built systems have the benefit of preventing fake reviews – as only customers who have bought from the brand receive the requests. While it can sometimes be a challenge to encourage shoppers to leave reviews, most retailers take a relatively relaxed approach, sending personal request emails to shoppers once they have received their orders.
Some retailers go further to encourage feedback. Joules, for example, runs a monthly competition to win a £100 gift card for all customers who leave reviews.
For smaller brands, social media is a lower-cost route to feedback than third-party review apps.
Lingerie start-up Lara Intimates plans to install a third-party reviews app in the coming months, but co-founder Cindy Liberman explains that, in the early days, social media reviews were a powerful tool for the brand.
When stories are authentic then readers can tell. They don’t feel contrived by a marketing team and they really resonate
Cindy Liberman, Lara Intimates
“Reviews seemed to happen quite organically for us,” she says. “People would post pictures of themselves wearing our product on social media and others would respond with their own reviews, and it just spirals from there.
“When stories are authentic then readers can tell. They don’t feel contrived by a marketing team and they really resonate.”
As a small business with a non-conventional product, Liberman notes that reviews are particularly key to building credibility with first-time shoppers.
“We have found that we have to build trust in the product because it’s quite different to what else is on the market,” she says. “People visit our website and may have never worn a wireless bra before. They feel like they need to hear other people’s stories in order to make a purchase.”
Deryane Tadd, owner of independent womenswear boutique The Dressing Room in St Albans, agrees that reviews can be particularly beneficial to lesser known retailers online. “We include reviews as a trust builder, it really helps when new customers visit the site to see that other people like and trust what they have bought,” she says.
“People look for [reviews] now and are more likely to buy from a retailer that has good reviews. As an independent, it is important that trust is built with new online customers immediately as they may not necessarily know us when they reach our site.”
Haeni Kim, founder of online womenswear brand Kitri, explains that reviews help the business to plan for fulfilment and replenishment on certain items, which is helpful for a small business with seasonal, limited collections.
“Feedback is invaluable. Online is our shop, there is no opportunity for customers to come and try on products, so we have to adjust how we operate continually to make sure we give as good a service as you would in store.”
Embracing all feedback, good and bad
Part and parcel of receiving reviews online is dealing with negative comments – and the way retailers respond to these is crucial to ensure customer satisfaction.
Some, including Joules and Seasalt, see negative reviews as an opportunity to show they will go above and beyond for their shoppers, ensuring issues are dealt with quickly.
Bad reviews are passed immediately to the customer support team at Joules and used to improve future practices, says Percival. “The team will make direct contact with a customer to ensure any issues are addressed. Negative reviews provide great insight into our product, and as a brand, we embrace all feedback both good and bad.”
Seasalt’s Hayes agrees. “Some [reviews] will require additional private responses to deliver over and above customer service, but we are always keen to learn how we can improve.”
We are pushing businesses to change their mindset – not just to collect feedback but to act on it
Nicolas Hammer, Critizr
“Every business should be collecting feedback from their shoppers,” says Nicolas Hammer, co-founder of French customer feedback management platform Critizr. “We are pushing them to change their mindset, and not just to collect feedback but to act on it. Companies are gathering more and more data, but this needs to be used in the right way. How can [the company] leverage this and use it to enhance the experience?”
Going forward, retailers have less face-to-face interaction with their customers but online reviews provide a valuable opportunity to connect. Beyond this, they can help businesses to better shape their stock fulfilment, purpose and service, and help to build trust with their customers, which all ultimately encourages sales.