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[21 comments]

'Ask Zappos' raises customer service bar, again

July 29, 2014

Zappos, a company known for exceptional customer service, has just upped its game again with a personal assistant who can help you track down shoes or other clothing — even if the e-tailer doesn't sell it.

The free service, Ask Zappos, provides customers with a personal shopping assistant who uses images provided by the shopper to hunt for the item online, reports CNET. Zappos then returns information about the item along with some alternative options.

According to CNET, Zappos began testing the service back in June and began promoting it on the homepage of its mobile site last week. Shoppers can send images to a personal shopper at Zappos in a variety of ways, including posting a photo on Instagram with the hashtag #AskZappos or attaching an image to an email or text message. Within 24 hours of receiving photos, "real, live people" from Zappos' customer loyalty team will respond with results.

In the future, Zappos plans to add image recognition to the service to automate some functions, but for now the technology doesn't work as well the stylists trained by the company. Will Young of Zappos Labs told CNET, the idea behind the service is to personalize the shopping experience and "wow the customer."

Several years ago, Aaron Magness, the former senior director of brand marketing for Zappos, told Fast Company that the aim is to "communicate with your customers, don't market to them." Ask Zappos is another in a long line of examples demonstrating the company's mission to not only talk the talk but walk the walk as well.

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Discussion Questions:

What effects will Ask Zappos have on the company's reputation and sales? Do you expect competitors and other apparel retailers to respond with similar online personal shopper services?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

How likely is Ask Zappos to lead to incremental sales gains for Zappos?

Comments:

Very nice—now *that's* customer-centricity in action! Great use of technology; I can see a nice long-run lift for Zappos from this initiative.

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Peter Fader, Professor of Marketing, The Wharton School of the Univ. of Pennsylvania

I just put them to the test with an old picture of Clarks via Instagram. If it works, it is a convenience which again is what they have always been selling. How they will measure the ROI for whatever time this takes probably will not be shared as much as these PR stories. Without deep pockets, I don't know who would devote such resources—or who should.

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Bob Phibbs, President/CEO, The Retail Doctor

What's old is new again. Sounds like a digital version of the legendary department stores like Gimbels in the movie "Miracle on 34th Street."

There is no question that "Ask Zappos" will wow consumers with personalization and service! As with most things, Zappos leads with innovation that differentiates.

However, given Amazon's recent trends and earnings, one has to wonder if such kinds of services are sustainable. And in this age of tech-savvy mobile shoppers, will today's omni-channel consumer wait 24 hours for Zappos to come back with an answer?

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Chris Petersen, PhD, President, Integrated Marketing Solutions

Why not? Service, service, service; and leave the hassles to us! Don't know how they'll evaluate the time and energy to track things down, but it should bring business; lots of business, and very satisfied, loyal customers if they succeed. And, yes, other apparel retailers will respond with similar personal shopping services. The article alludes to, but doesn't go into "image recognition technology," the new shopping app that Amazon is purveying in its new Amazon Fire smartphone. Image recognition technology is very much in the picture (excuse the pun), and we will see all kinds of action and reaction from retailers to use this technology and defend against it.

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Naomi K. Shapiro, Strategic Market Communications, Upstream Commerce

If delighting the customer is Zappos' goal, then they are on the right track with Ask Zappos. That being said, I don't think Zappos' intentions are solely focused on the customer, based on this statement above, "Zappos then returns information about the item along with some alternative options." I wouldn't be surprised if, when Zappos doesn't have the desired item(s), some of the alternative options will be Zappos product.

Smart company.

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Bill Davis, Director, MB&G Consulting

Customer service, customer service and again customer service. Zappos has been known for that and it continues. Who does it better? And it helps to have the deep pockets to devote to it. This should be a winner and the beginning of a new trend in customer service.

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Ed Rosenbaum, CEO, The Customer Service Rainmaker, Rainmaker Solutions

Wow, wow, wow. Talk about frictionless commerce—and nary a coupon or validation code in sight.

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Cathy Hotka, Principal, Cathy Hotka & Associates

This is big. Great application of technology to bring personal service to a broader audience. How it will affect Zappos' sales depends on two things; the way recommendations are communicated and the loyalty factor. Zappos is already doing quite well on the latter. Narrow price differentials will be invisible. Quality assurance will be a major factor.

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Dan Raftery, President, Raftery Resource Network Inc.

This is brilliant! Consider:

  1. The technology is not a big deal. You can search by image on Google and get everything from where the location of the picture is to where to buy an item.
  2. In fact, Zappos may have the item—ka-ching!
  3. If they don't and can find it for the customer, they make their customer very happy.
  4. If they make their customer very happy, the customer will always start at Zappos.
  5. If the customer always starts at Zappos, see number 2 above.

And, along the way, Zappos collects data on what their customers want and adjusts their product mix appropriately. Did I say "brilliant?"

The difference in the Zappos mentality and most retailers is this:

ZAPPOS: We want to sell you what you want.
MOST RETAILERS: We want you to buy what we sell.

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Gene Detroyer, Professor, Independent

Placing customer service in every part of the company's market presence is a clear demonstration of just how important the consumer really is.

The question of who is going to benefit from something, as in the consumer or the customer, should be asked before a commitment to an action takes place. Is the company inviting consumers to visit their site to assist with the location of non-stock items or even categories? This will surely get some attention that might otherwise not have taken place. The thought process possibly being, "let's get them in the door and our products and services will sell themselves." We are now living in a much smaller sales volume retail market and the trend is that it is continuing to shrink. Viability and growth are addressed by acquiring more market share for what is being sold at the present, as well as placing new product categories to address the needs of other markets. This is something we have learned well or wish we did.

But what do we do when the big sites like Alibaba, Amazon or ATG largely ignore our offerings simply for pricing reasons? Is taking them on a profitable approach to the need for shoppers? Since there is no clear reason to alter the consumer's market approach there is likewise no reason to expect a change in consumer habits. This is additionally burdened with the need for the consumer to learn a new site navigation method and appearance. So while it sounds like a great customer service addition I don't think the investment passes the balance scale test without smoke and mirrors. So we are left with what might be seen as a good idea from a bad investment of time and money.

'gjarnoldjr'

The whole idea is to keep you engaged with the Zappos brand, which is good thinking of course. However, if it's slow, doesn't work, the people that call aren't so good, etc., it can become high risk compared to pure online shopping. In any case, it's a nice try. I like nice tries. They're better than not trying at all.

And why does this all sound familiar? Gee, because it's just like going to a store and talking to a knowledgeable sales associate, only slower. Remember that?

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Lee Peterson, EVP Creative Services, WD Partners

Spot on. Not only does this have the potential to delight customers, but as Bill Davis says, it gives the opportunity to recommend similar items. If the search determines the shoe is a Louboutin for $800, perhaps unaffordable for the customer, a similar look from Zappos at a lesser price might be perfect. In addition, the knowledge of the customer could be incredible—how great could it be to know everything in her closet in giving the merchant the ability to suggest items?

Don Uselmann, SVP Director of Stores, Florida and NY, Ex Saks Fifth Avenue

Agree with the panel that this is brilliant. It may well be an example of looking to other industries to inspire innovation, as Ask Zappos resembles a similar service pioneered by Progressive Insurance.

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Martin Mehalchin, Partner, Lenati, LLC

Kuddos for Zappos! If they can sustain it, it is brilliant! What is the customer currency they are buying? The customers first stop! That's worth a lot more than my 2 cents...just sayin'."

Lee Kent, Encourages retailers to meet share and learn, YourRetailAuthority

The world is your showroom and Zappos is your retailer. That's not so hard to do technically, but culturally it shows a willingness to creatively evolve.

Vahe Katros, Consultant, Plan B

This is a great idea, however, as many have stated, the sustainability of this venture long term is uncertain at best. Looking up products from images from cell phones is still difficult. I know Shazam is an awesome tool for music, but audio signal when converted to digital form is fairly easy to pattern match. Images are a whole lot more complicated. Also consider where these images are coming from. Are people snapping pictures of other people's feet on the street? That may have other problems where Shazam is pretty much completely anonymous and no one knows you are using it.

The accuracy of the results will determine consumer trust in the product to continue to use and more importantly to recommend to others. I suspect the media attention alone is worth it here, however, other retailers coming late to the party may not find the same value in media coverage.

Having said that, in my opinion, the back end of this should be crowd sourced. The retailer should create a program as part of the loyalty machine to have a pool of loyal customers find the shoes for the clients and reward the shoe expert with loyalty points with higher points for matching shoes in their inventory. Something like that. This will boost loyalty, create a fun activity for the shoe fanatics and make it sustainable long term. A tie in with social media will make this even better by making the social media the playground where the image is discussed. Let's face it, people who love shoes really know their stuff and love to share. They are often more helpful than the sales reps.

Making relationships and helping customers is great, but the data collected here is far more valuable, in my opinion. Especially when this data can be used with BIG DATA and social media profiles to drive future promotions and marketing campaigns.

So is it sustainable? I don't think so in its current form, but I think they will figure out these things I mentioned here if they have not already. It will depend on what their long-term plan is with this program.

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Gajendra Ratnavel, CEO, L Squared Digital Signage

What a fab way for Zappos to find out what their customers have seen somewhere and want, but which may not already be in the Zappos product line. Emerging trends, new brands, regional preferences, straight from the horses' mouths. That's what listening to customers is all about.

'Liatt'

This new service gives reason for consumers to consider Zappos as a point of shopping centricity. Similar to the way Amazon has added payment options and other value through Prime to stay front and center in the minds of customers, Zappos is on a similar path.

The comment "communicate with your customers, don't market to them" says it all. That comment expresses a simple, logical approach to retail business that should be core to all retailers.

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Bill Hanifin, Managing Director, Hanifin Loyalty LLC

Ask Zappos is a concept ahead of its time. Unfortunately, it is also a solution looking for a problem. Yes, consumers need some assistance, but usually not to this level. The folks at Zappos need to apply the 80/20 rule here and become more real-world in their approach to their customers....

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Kai Clarke, President, Kowa Optimed, Inc.

Brilliant! Regardless of how initially successful or used this service is, it absolutely demands other retailers be on notice. Experience is everything. Even if as a customer you don't use the service, you know it's there, if you do use it and your quest goes unsatisfied—at least they tried! This reminds me of the old days of department stores, like Harrod's, Omnia Omnibus Ubique, or All Things for All People, Everywhere. It's customer service and personalization at its best. Delivered with the ease of digital. Is Zappos resurrecting the best of why department stores used to be? What's was old, is new again. BRAVO Zappos!

heather thornswood, Creative Director+Strategist, Good People Branding

Follow up if anyone makes it all the way to this comment. They replied in 24 hours from Instagram with six choices of very similar shoes—only one was from Zappos. Very smart and yes, I ordered them from a competitor they gave me.

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Bob Phibbs, President/CEO, The Retail Doctor

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