Unintelligible sentences, jargon, spelling mistakes… the standard of writing on retailers’ web sites can be woefully bad. Charlotte Hardie spells out why it’s costing them dearly and what needs to be done

Brought to you by Adidas are these distinctive women's [sic] shoes. A stylish dress shoe,” Office states proudly on its web site. That is the sum total of the product description of a pair of white and gold lace-up women’s shoes. Hardly an incentive to whip out the credit card and buy them, is it?

This isn’t intended as a swipe at Office – the shoe retailer is far from alone – but it does exemplify the fact that many retailers struggle to provide useful, accurate and well-written product information that will increase sales.

“It’s a huge problem,” says Fat Face finance director Shaun Wills, who was formerly responsible for New Look’s online operations. “In an ideal world, you’d ask the buyers to do it, because in theory, they know all about the product and they know what customers are looking for. But, in reality, if they’re not trained to do it, it can be badly written and become littered with internal shorthand.”

It’s not just writing the descriptions that flummoxes retailers. Product coding can prove equally troublesome. Keying in certain specifications – for instance, in the case of a digital camera, its zoom or megapixel resolution – is time consuming. Often, those assigned to the task only bother adding in all the specifications for top-selling models. And, as Baugur e-commerce advisor Michael Ross says: “Unless there is a dedicated team to ensure this is done properly, many of the attributes of products become lost online.”

The problem is generally more prevalent in offline businesses that have branched out into online. Pure-play e-tail or new retail businesses are more likely to have put in place processes and systems from the start; having to change the mindset of an existing team is not an issue.

When New Look launched its transactional site, Wills found there was no alternative but to give the responsibility for product descriptions to the e-commerce team. However, that means the team has to spend a great deal of time they don’t necessarily have with the buying team, trying to understand the products. “Otherwise, you could end up with descriptions such as ‘black shoe’, which aren’t going to help anyone,” he explains. “The other problem is that e-commerce teams are often quite junior and it requires a large amount of training.”

This isn’t about pointing the finger. The average retail buyer or e-commerce professional can’t necessarily be expected to write perfect, scintillating copy online any more than the average writer could be expected to purchase perfect product ranges at a perfect price or sort out a retailer’s web operations. But it is important that people within the retail businesses take responsibility and address the problem.

Dragging down the brand

So what are the most common mistakes? Poor grammar, nonsensical sentences and misspellings are rife. You don’t have to spend long on the internet before you find examples of both (see boxes, right, which have been copied exactly as they appear on the web site) and, unfortunately, even the smallest mistakes matter. As Wills says: “It is noticed and it reflects the quality of the brand.” On Boots’ site, for instance, the retailer talks about how the Philips Sonicare Hydroclean Toothbrush “gently increases power over firs [sic] 14 uses”.

Some sites don’t put any emphasis on product description at all, or their use of them is sporadic. All Saints is one example. Some of its product pages contain a sentence or two; others contain nothing other than the product name, colour and price. Uniqlo falls into a similar trap. Click on “more info” for its printed A-line tunic dress and all you get is “dark grey printed A-line tunic” and the price underneath.

And yet product information is often essential. Because online shoppers can’t try on the clothes, test the gadgets, or pick the products up, browsers need assistance. Wills explains: “It can make the difference between a sale and non-sale, particularly for dark products on fashion sites, because they don’t photograph well. Trying to understand the difference between two pairs of jeans from a photograph is really quite tricky.”

Habitat’s web site – although not transactional – illustrates the impracticality of some retailers’ product information. It describes how its Hana wardrobe is “unique and timeless”, but gives no idea as to the rail or shelving capacity inside it.

Many e-tailers also love jargon. Terms bandied about by the buying and merchandising teams and suppliers are often mystifying to the customer. Take Faith’s site, where the shoe retailer refers to its Difar gold sandal has having “diamante encrusted crossover vamp”.

Equally, product information on many sites is sometimes of no use to browsers whatsoever. On Wyevale’s web site, a description of celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson’s charcoal kettle barbecue provides product information, but does not explain it. “This is a unique v shaped grill, with a slide out ash pan for easy claening [sic],” it says. Most shoppers would have no idea of the benefits of a v-shaped grill, or indeed why it is unique.

So, the problem is clearly widespread. The question is, what can retailers do about it?

One solution is to write the product information in list form. It’s not creative or imaginative, but at least it’s practical and easy to read and can help minimise errors. Retailers such as Mamas & Papas and Argos both provide extensive lists to get across as much information as possible.

Be warned, though – lists are not ideal for every type of retailer and they are not a get-out clause. But they do work particularly well for some target markets. A Mamas & Papas spokeswoman explains: “Parents need practicality because they are budget-sensitive and usually time-poor, so they need to be able to compare and contrast products quickly in terms of features, benefits, prices points and delivery times,” she says.

However, merely listing a couple of facts that any shopper could have deduced from the photograph is not particularly useful. On Mothercare’s web site, the three-point product detail list for a long black skirt contains nothing more than the colour, the material and the available sizes. Something far more inspiring is required to grab shoppers’ attention.

Firebox managing director Christian Robinson says that many online teams also make the mistake of “taking the manufacturer’s blurb and sticking that online”. He adds: “From day one, we were very careful to avoid using generic descriptions.”

To help improve standards of product descriptions, retailers will have to review the way in which their teams are structured and the methods of communication between those teams. At Firebox, the web design team works closely with the buying team to share the unique selling points of each product. Some of the copy is written in-house, but the retailer also invests in freelance writers who meet regularly with buyers to discuss and look at the ranges. Despite the extra expenditure on freelancers, Robinson says: “We see this as part of the cost of doing business in this sector, in the same way that customer service is not an afterthought.”

At Mamas & Papas, commercial managers, product developers, the buying and merchandising team and the marketing team all work together to produce range plans. These involve all aspects of the products, including names, prices and materials and everyone is clear about what information will go online. “We have more than 2,000 products and some have subtle differences, so accuracy is paramount,” says the spokeswoman.

Nevertheless, Ross insists that, ultimately, retailers need to create a designated web merchandising team whose sole concern is how that site is presented to consumers. “The smart retailers are thinking about that and creating this new function,” he says.

And those who scoff at the expense involved might want to think again. Ross believes it is the only real solution. “It’s a false economy to say you don’t have the budget. If you don’t believe coding product properly or writing proper product descriptions is going to give you a sales uplift, there’s no point in having a web site in the first place,” he says. “Retailers that are unambitious about their online business make small investments and hire mediocre people. Those that are succeeding are embracing the opportunity.”

There are simple rules (see box, left) that will help those responsible for online product descriptions improve their writing skills. However, online sales continue to rocket every year and, if retailers want to improve their online brand’s image and reputation, investment is needed. Digging deep to find the requisite funds may leave a bitter aftertaste – particularly in the present climate – but that will soon be balanced by the sweetness of soaring sales.

The grammar doctor

Retail Week managing editor Niall Hunt has been making writers’ copy sparkle for 10 years and is a keen online shopper. Here are his tips on how to write a good product description

  • Keep it simple

  • Keep sentences short and to the point

  • Make sure titles and descriptions are search-engine optimised, ie they should carry the words and phraseology that a customer would type into Google. So if someone is looking for “size 11 Merrell trainers”, the title of your item should contain the words “size 11 Merrell trainers

  • Avoid fluffy language such as: “This is the best money can buy.” Online shoppers will know where to buy the cheapest

  • Ensure key facts are clearly visible

  • Price, including delivery costs, should be displayed prominently

  • Imagery should always match what the customer receives

THE GOOD
Marks & Spencer

3/4 sleeve floral print crinkle kaftan: “Feminine and flirty, this fashionable kaftan features a pretty floral print with crinkle effect. The ultimate in poolside glamour.”

Retail Week verdict: A reasonably well-written, concise and creative description that contains all the information you would need to know, including the material and washing instructions.

Firebox

Magna Cube: “Magna-ificently perplexing puzzle. This fist-bitingly complex puzzle is crafted from eight wooden pieces containing strategically placed magnets. Simply assemble the whole shebang into a cube and Robert’s your mother’s brother. Confused? You will be, because some sections repel whilst others attract. Aargh!”

Retail Week verdict: This is humorous and reflects what the brand is about. If you need more information, there’s an even more detailed description complete with explanatory pictures.

THE BAD
Urban Outfitters

Lux strappy drapey front dress: “The perfect all rounder dress with drapey cross over detail at front can be dressed down with flats, or up with heels. Thrown on some jewels and you are set of a night out, so slip on some flip flops for a great beach dress.”

Retail Week verdict: At least it has made an effort to elaborate on how you might wear the dress, but the poor grammar makes the site look extremely amateur.

Wilkinson

Trust mouse wireless optical: “Wireless optical mouse with high 1000dpi optical technology. 2.4 GHz wireless operation for smooth and immediate mouse response with a range up to 8m. Smart link technology. Requires 2x AA batteries, included.”

Retail Week verdict: Granted, some people are more technologically minded than others, but what is Wilkinson on about? If product information is written in list format, effort needs to go into making it less dull.

THE UGLY

Laura Ashley

Garratt two door wardrobe: “A handsome2 door wardrobe predominantly made from solid birch complete with antique brass effect handles. Hand finished to enhance the natural beauty of the wood. With 6 drawers hanging rail shlef [sic] and tie rack.Delivered in 2 parts largest delivery dimension H139cm W 127 cm D 60 cm.”

Retail Week verdict: Laura Ashley wants people to part with£750 based on this? The average 10-year-old could write a better sentence than this.

Office

Poste Mistress mix and match black leather shoe: “Fabulous shoe from Poste Mistress. The 2 inch cone heel gives you lift with discomfort. Metallic detailing makes this eye catching as well as being a key trend, and the small peep toe makes this great for all year round, in the winter team with tights, and in the summer bear [sic] legs.”

Retail Week verdict: Apparently this is a fantastically uncomfortable pair of shoes. And if you’ve got legs that resemble a large hairy mammal, then this is the footwear for you.

What’s the silliest online product description you’ve seen? E-mail us at: editorial@retail-week.com