Securing shoppers’ custom online is not just about value; good service means everything too.

These are challenging times for consumers and retailers alike. As the turbulence caused by the credit crunch impacts on the “real” economy, consumers are reining in spending with a renewed focus on value.

Debates rage as to how long and deep this consumer downturn will be, but what is certain is that this shift in consumer behaviour will be with us for some time to come.

In the retail sector, online sales continue to show some degree of resilience compared with the high street. There is no doubt that, alongside convenience, one of the drivers behind this growth is the value proposition, in that consumers can easily shop around for great savings online and compare prices.

But that’s only part of the story and online retailers should beware of focusing too much on value at the expense of customer service.
Technology is driving the pace of changing customer expectations. The explosion in social media means all of our customers are demanding the ability to manage their relationships with retailers across multiple platforms like e-mail, SMS, the internet, and the telephone.
This is opening retailers up to 24-hour operations. Customers will place an order on Thursday for an outfit they want to wear on Friday night and they expect it will be delivered on time, perfectly presented.

As the slowdown bites, retailers will have to deliver great online service in order to survive and retain customers. Loyalty will become the measure as opposed to just individual hits or sessions.

Recent research by customer analysis consultancy Tealeaf has shown almost 90 per cent of customers who bought online have experienced problems and that 50 per cent of these would have no hesitation in abandoning an order and going elsewhere. It’s so much easier for consumers to be less loyal online when competitors are but a click away.

E-tailers are realising that web site usability only accounts for about 20 per cent of customer satisfaction, with the other 80 per cent coming from service and fulfilment. The questions the customer is asking are: does this retailer honour what they say they will do? Can it keep its promises? It’s easy to forget there is no reassuring smile or conversation when you purchase online.

At Shop Direct Group we have embarked on a comprehensive Customer First campaign that looks at every single facet of our customer service. For example, in July we took on customers of the Empire brand and were able to offer improved delivery times immediately, down from six days to a 48-hour standard delivery, with an option for 24-hour delivery. We’ve also improved our response times to customer enquiries for our peak period and are now responding to e-mails within minutes and enquiries are actioned within 24 hours.

So value is an important driver, but equally, value doesn’t mean cheap.

Mark Newton-Jones, Chief executive, Shop Direct Group