Tuesday, 25 November 2014

5 things that make internet shopping awesome

Australians spend over $20 billion per year  shopping online.  As we're fast approaching Christmas, I thought I would do a quick recap on the top five reasons why this figure is so large and amazing :)

1. The range of products

I was about 14 years old when I started reading Vogue seriously, grabbing my copy every month, becoming familiar with sections of the publication, recognising recurring names of content contributors. It will sound hilarious (and some Gen Zs might have no idea what I'm talking about) but my favourite section was the 'stockists page', tucked away towards the end of the mag. This page had all the names and Australian contact numbers of the brands/designers of every item of clothing and accessory featured in the magazine's stories.  When I was reading Vogue and Bazaar, I would find dresses and shoes and the prices would usually be well out of my meagre school student range (natch). However, I started to get an idea of what these sorts of items cost and when I had saved enough money, I got out the stockists page and found the number for the store that apparently 'stocked' the particular Pierre Hardy black patent peeptoe pump I planned to buy as my very first pair of investment high heels (bless, look at me, the sophisticated 18 year old). I called the store and explained I was calling from Queensland and that I wished to buy an item over the phone that I had seen in Vogue using a credit card. The lady laughed so hard I was amazed she had the breath left to tell me that 'people don't buy things over the phone'. True story.

So Australian retail was a pretty woeful experience for fashion lovers in the late 90s/early millennium. It was a revelation when Net-a-Porter launched (sidebar: I was a Net-a-Porter subscriber so early on, it was when they still divided designers into the 'Salon' and the 'Boutique' - aw...). As internet retail expanded, the outraged squeals from local bricks-and-mortar retailers came in loud and clear: it's not fair, how can we possibly compete?!!

Answer: well, giving your customers what they want might be a novel idea. We don't want the bare minimum of any designer's collection. Oooooh, David Jones has finally stocked Christian Louboutin shoes? Wow, how exciting! Oh...so it's just two actual designs? And you got two in each size for, like, the entire country? That sounds intelligent. And they're um, $900 for why exactly, coz I can buy them online for about $450 with the exchange rate?

It may be impossible for people in Europe and the UK and US to understand but trust me ladies, this was the true retail picture in Australia for a very long time. Minimal range, snooty sales assistants who knew less about the product than most customers but thought we were lucky to be spending money in their stores and prices that were sometimes twice what we would pay overseas. And the worst part? The companies treated us, their customers, as though we should be grateful for it.

I'm now a firm internet buyer for anything high-end. Matches, Net-a-Porter and Browns are my poison as far as clothes are concerned. There's a clear UK-bias and I don't really know why, it's just that the edits just seems to speak to my personal aesthetic so well. Matches in particular seems to stock lots of really wearable classic investment pieces season after season, that enable me to step away from the reliable-but-boring world of black pants/pencil skirt plus two-button jacket *bleurrgh*.

Now, it's not all about giving Australian retail a toe up the clacker ;) I also prefer whenever possible to buy from local or domestic stores online as well, because...

2. Convenience!

I don't have to go into detail about this one. Shopping is a time-consuming activity. I'm an economist, time is my number-one valued commodity. I'm also a lawyer, and time is pretty damn expensive for those people too, ESPECIALLY if you're paying for it. I don't want to go out when it suits the shops to be open to me. I finish work usually around 6pm and then I'm off to walk my dog, exercise, cook, clean and heaven help me, spend some time with my soon-to-be husband.  Shopping is something I'm very happy to do when I'm sitting on my couch or in bed, with a glass of wine or cup of tea, on a lazy Sunday evening while dinner is cooking...you get the picture.

3. Customer service

Point 1 above doesn't exactly paint the world of retail sales assistants in a great light.  However, it seems to me that when you make your purchase through the framework of the internet, customer service can be brought to the fore.  It makes sense in a lot of ways: retail SAs standing around in shops are usually bored, tired and couldn't be bothered even trying to gloss over the fact that they are only turning up to work so they can still get paid.  Nothing about their work inspires them and you, their customer, are nothing more or less than an annoyance. However, email enquiries to customer service in my experience are invariably answered promptly. The best e-tailers include individuals' names and contact phone numbers so that you can go the old-fashioned route and speak to a person if you prefer to take your interaction out of the email arena. I've even had a customer service representative from the UK work with me to arrange a time to speak with her about a particular bespoke item, to make sure she (and I) understood completely what I was trying to purchase and there could be no disappointment.

Now I know that there are larger online traders that don't provide a great level of customer service, but then they probably wouldn't be great at customer service if they were in a bricks-and-mortar store either.  My experience has been that the entire framework of online retail is more readily geared towards providing a great customer service experience simply because there are written records of customer interactions and staff performance. There is no quibbling about how long it took for someone to get back to you about your enquiry - the times and dates are right there on the email for all to see.  There is no confusion about what the customer service rep did or didn't advise the customer. The entire process naturally provides far greater accountability for retail assistants. And the good companies (and good sales assistants) know it.

4. Getting parcels and packages delivered makes any random day like a birthday or Christmas

Call me sentimental, but parcels delivered by post are right up there with raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens in my incredibly busy digital-heavy world of high-speed communication and instant decision-making. Frankly, it's just fun to receive something by post, open the boring cardboard box and find all the pretty wrapping inside. In fact, packaging has become something a lot of e-tailers are focusing more on, because the best ones recognise that there is still an 'experience' to be attached to shopping in the virtual world, if THEY choose to create it. I've received parcels with handwritten notes with nothing more than good wishes by the person who packed it and you know what? I like that. I would never get that shopping at a physical store, would I?

Happy Tuesday to me, happy Tuesday to me!

5. Participation

The modern world and particularly social media move at an incredibly fast pace. I obviously don't maintain an even vaguely-current social media presence (I'm working on it, I do have Twitter and Instagram accounts - yay me!). There is quite a disconnect between those of us who work in 'old' economies/industries and those who are moving almost exclusively into the 'new' industries where social media content and activity is either an essential support component of a product or service, or it is the product itself. I'm an old industry participant - I run a company that employs real human beings in real time and that sells services to real human beings in real time.  My real presence is non-negotiable and consequently, given there are only so many hours in the day, it would be possible for me to feel quite excluded from the virtual world where information moves so quickly.  Internet shopping however, allows me to maintain an (albeit) small level of interaction with the online industry. I might begin by browsing dresses somewhere but then be taken to an online publication such as The Style Report by Matches (one of my favourites). I might want some information about a product and go to my hands-down recommended source of genuine feedback on clothes and jewellery and accessories on the net - The Purse Forum - where I'll find reviews and be able to ask questions from other fashionably-minded individuals. I will also have the opportunity to find blogs, some of which have become firm favourites with posts from lovely women all over the world, all managing lives while keeping their fashion-fantasies alive. It makes me feel connected and I'd take that over Facebook's algorithm-generated, ad-heavy 'news' feed any day.

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