Why Are Retailers So E-Mail Challenged?

Mar 06, 2013

Social and mobile may be trendy in retail marketing circles, but the facts, as various research reports have shown, is that most consumers prefer to get their electronic communications via e-mail. The surprising thing is that retailers know this, have known it for some time, and still are not very good at it.

Among my personal pet peeves with retailers involve e-mail blitzes, off-target targeted pitches and insincere messages of thanks.

Pretty much everyone has been hit with an e-mail blitz. You decide to opt-in to receive a retailer’s promotional emails and they come in without let-up. Kohl’s, I found, was among the biggest transgressors in this regard before I opted out of their e-mails a couple of years back.

Count me among those who think retailers should spend much less time talking about Big Data until they come up with a whole lot of small answers — such as answering, what is it the customer really wants? As much as I enjoy shopping on Amazon.com, I’ve begun to think they are employing a grasp-at-straws algorithm to guess what I’m likely to buy next. I ordered a laser printer cartridge recently and, based on past usage, it should last me about two years. Amazon apparently has no way of figuring this out on its own and hasn’t bothered to ask me. Instead, it has sent me several e-mails pitching me on similar products I neither need nor want.

Finally, there are those follow-up thank you e-mails that tell you how much a retailer values your business and offers a discount on your next order as long as you place it right away. I understand the reason behind these e-mails, but it’s shortsighted. If you value my business and want me back, make the offer without the strings attached. Loyalty is a two-way street. If you want mine, then send me an e-mail that demonstrates you want my business, but understand the best and only way to do that is on my terms.

What are retailers doing well and poorly when it comes to e-mail communications today? Are there particular merchants, in your mind, that stand out in either regard?

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14 Comments on "Why Are Retailers So E-Mail Challenged?"

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Cathy Hotka

Woe be unto the consumer who shares an email address with certain retailers (you know who you are.) One rule of email communication should be “don’t spam the customer every day.” If I didn’t purchase a six-piece dining set today, don’t assume that I will tomorrow. Or the next day.

Zel Bianco

This article is very timely in all the discussions I’m having about shopper marketing and the ultimate power of the shopper. It’s a known fact that targeted e-mails help to grow business and keep touch with customers. But when it’s off-message, too aggressive, or just plain annoying, retailers run the risk of actually hurting their chances of repeat transactions. George is right, Big Data needs to be sifted through to get down to actually engaging consumers instead of throwing messages out there and hoping something will stick.

Max Goldberg

George hit the nail on the head. Many retailers abuse email either by sending too many, too often and/or by not using common sense to target consumers. Retail emails need to be short, colorful and to the point. They should be thoughtfully targeted, not just based on a past purchase. The information and offers need to be significant enough to be worth a consumer’s time. Make it easy for consumers to self target by opting into and out of specific email communication.

Retailers need to think like consumers, not marketers.

Debbie Hauss

Some things I think are particularly relevant:

  1. Target shoppers with personalized, relevant messages.
  2. Use standard messages—such as order confirmations—to serve up incentives, promotions or other offers.
  3. Regularly analyze email open rates.
  4. Figure out how many emails are too many.
  5. As with any retail strategy, pay close attention to your best customers—give them what they want and ask them what they need. Provide them with special deals, promotions and gifts without attaching any requirements to redeem.
Nikki Baird

Retailers definitely send too many emails, and they don’t target the emails, and they send them at bad times.

My personal pet peeve is Barnes & Noble. I like books, and I read a lot of books (when I can), but the books I read fit into three very specific categories: business books, scifi/fantasy books with the occasional stray into adjacent genres, and books on writing. I would gladly take curation from someone who sees all the new books coming out, but what I get from them is only a mass blast chock full of romance and historical non-fiction and all kinds of other stuff that I just don’t read. I would happily TELL B&N how to better target to me, but I can’t find any place to do that, and apparently the books that I do buy aren’t enough to clue them in. A case where targeting and curation would clearly help, and yet is not done. In my case, it would not seem like rocket science, and yet, apparently it is.

David Livingston
4 years 6 months ago

Since most emails are meaningless junk, consumers put them in their spam folders. I try to block as many as I can. I’m only interested if the retailer is giving me something for free. I don’t care about discounts, specials, or thank yous. I care about getting meaningful free products. If you want to get the consumer to read your emails then you will have to pay them by offering free no strings attached meals, goods, and services.

W. Frank Dell II

I delete 99% of e-mail that comes from retailers because they don’t tell me anything I don’t already know. The concept of consent contact or daily e-mail from a retailer I shop once a quarter is wasting everyone’s time. If you are offering a promotion do it on something I buy frequently at the store or online. Offering me a promotion on a product I don’t need is a waste of time.

What they should be doing is no more than once a week, tell me something new. Offer a new service or tell me what new product line you now carry. The lack of good data mining is evident. They have the tools, now it’s time to use them.

Lee Kent

Not sure how I want to address this one. Yes, retailers tend to do a very poor job when it comes to email. I don’t mind getting them, but would like them to at least know who I am. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean they should cull through the big data and try to figure me out by my purchases. That can be very misleading since I buy more for others than for myself. When someone can figure that out, then okay. But for now, they just need to at least know my demographic. Don’t send me 20 something stuff!

Also, today’s’ consumer wants to simply be informed and respected, not sold to. Big difference. Like many publications that write about several areas, they ask the subscriber what they would like to hear about. This would be a great first step for retail. Ask me what labels I would like to hear about, events, sales, run-way shows? Then respect the consumer by asking for input and feedback, but on a limited basis. Get it?

Robert DiPietro

It is a massive blast of information in the email and not tailored to the customer or the customer segment. I subscribe to many retailers’ weekly, if not daily emails and I’m dismayed by the pure spam I receive.

I’m hard pressed to find one merchant that stands out!

Shep Hyken

The biggest problem with email communications is the volume. If I receive a weekly (or sometimes daily) email from a retailer and one of those messages is really important, I may miss it. The reason is that it just blends in with the rest of the promotion.

I talk to consumers and the general consensus is they receive too much. The biggest request is that the retailer only send appropriate emails. For example, some retailers ask if you are interested in specific merchandise and only send emails about the consumer’s specific interests.

Specificity and customization are the beginning of a successful email communications program. Knowing how often to send is another important key.

Brian Numainville

A major issue with emails from retailer is frequency. Many retailers email way too often which results in the consumer ignoring them, flagging them as spam or otherwise disengaging. Plus, when the offers are “general” and not targeted, that just adds to the frustration. I think there is a long way to go!

Melissa Eisenberg
Melissa Eisenberg
4 years 6 months ago

I think one of the biggest annoyances with e-mail communications is the lack of tailored content. There are times where I get ‘back to school’ emails when I have been out of school for many years. It is as if they are shooting in the dark when they press the send button.

Good email communications offer easy to claim deals, without excessive graphics. Clean, simple messaging and design can help me feel more able to digest their message. I also think it helps when retailers put a time limit on claiming an offer. If there is no pressure for me to click through and claim the deal, I can let the email sit in my inbox for days, and even weeks. By the time I get to it, it is either irrelevant, or the initial excitement I had about the promotion has been lost.

Another strategy that works is to offer online promotional codes, so customers don’t actually have to go into the store to claim the deal. Paired with social media sharing, customers can be more interactive with the retailer, and share a good deal when they see one, effortlessly through their social networks.

Karen S. Herman

Office Max (brick and mortar transactions) and Zazzle.com (online transactions) are two retailers that have good e-mail follow-up to purchases. Office Max e-mails targeted flash sales and coupons that catch my attention. Zazzle focuses on post purchase to ensure product is well received and then sends a weekly e-mail on special sales or discounts. I do not find any of these annoying and actually appreciate the reminders, most likely because I value the products each retailer offers.

Alexander Rink
4 years 6 months ago

Generally speaking, the key is to make the emails as targeted as possible, with regards to products featured and deals offered. Consumers are more likely to open and follow up on emails that are relevant and personalized for them. On the other hand, one of the worst things a retailer can do is to send too many emails—it may be attractive to do because email is so inexpensive to send, but once a prospective customer unsubscribes or filters your emails because they receive too many of them, you have likely lost them forever.


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