Stop alienating customers with inconsistent e-commerce experiences | Maru Group


By Maria Melioumi, Marketing Writer, Maru/Matchbox | June 2, 2022

A man and woman looking at a laptop.
Consumers over 35 want an e-commerce platform that is vested in them now and in the long term.

New homeowner, Olga, found the perfect sofa bed on the website of a furniture and home décor company. It was the ideal size for her office/guest room, and she was excited about her pending purchase. The item was out of stock online, though the site reported that her local store had one in stock which was quickly sold. Another location showed one in stock, so she raced over and when she arrived at the store, discovered they had six sofas in stock. This incorrect reporting was very frustrating. Based on this experience, Olga’s enthusiasm for the purchase was unsurprisingly diminished. While the retailer was working to make the customer journey a “total experience” they only managed a frustrating and inconsistent one at this point.

The pitfalls of third-party platforms

Many companies had e-commerce facilities before the pandemic, but they often produced only a small portion of their sales. As pandemic-shuttered consumers turned to online shopping in exploding numbers, and more companies turned to third-party fulfillment partners, the issues with e-commerce became exponentially apparent. E-commerce is a complex fulfillment system which can encompass warehousing, search, selection, payment, delivery, and returning of goods. Issues in this multi-channel customer experience (CX) can and do arise as the service relays with third parties occur. Brands need to understand the end-to-end customer journey, including the various touchpoints, and any gaps or customer pain points that detract from a satisfying experience. It’s not enough to offer online ordering. That experience must be seamless to foster loyalty and repeat business. With third-party providers, brands cannot control the CX which erodes their equity.

Retailers may be constrained by the demands of platforms, forced to create promotional packs and discounts that bolster the third party, not retailer brands. They may be undercut by the platform and forced to compete with competitors on price, resulting in decreased margins. An important element of e-commerce is the collection of customer data. Brands can lose control of this data to third-party platforms that create suggestive selling options of competitor merchandise instead of the specific brand’s products. Worse still, when retailers create their own e-commerce site with a spotty CX, they erode their own brand.

The Toys R Us story is a cautionary tale for retailers considering a third-party e-commerce site. The brand failed to adapt and innovate. In the early days of e-commerce, the Toys R Us website kept crashing. After many customers didn’t get their orders before Christmas one year, they signed a 10-year agreement with Amazon to be the exclusive toy sellers on the site and redirected their website to Amazon’s. In breach of their agreement with Toys R Us, Amazon inked deals with other toy sellers, like Target. Toys R Us sued and won. They made some other bad business decisions, like cutting staff and overinvesting in huge, uninspiring, suburban big-box stores that customers simply did not want to shop at anymore instead of building an online presence. They failed to adapt as children embraced digital apps and video games. It took them 10 years to build a new website, centuries in e-commerce terms, and by then it was too late. They were forced to file for bankruptcy.

Third-party direct-to-consumer (DTC) platforms

DTC platform services can give you an instant route to customers and fulfillment at a time when you need an e-commerce solution quickly, but they have their downsides.

1. They build their brand at the expense of yours.

2. They weaken your business by promoting your competitors.

3. Benefit from your customer data.

4. Control your CX. You are subcontracting responsibility for your CX to a third party who is not as vested in long-term relationships with your customers as you are.

Protect your equity

Instacart, the San Francisco-based online grocery and merchandise platform started by a former Amazon employee, has extensive reach in the U.S. (over 60 retailers) and Canada (over 40 retailers). What happens though when a problem occurs with an online order? Do customers blame the retailer, e.g., Walgreens or Staples, or do they blame Instacart where the problem occurred? In the eyes of the customer, blame lies with the retailer whose site they ordered from. They’re often not even aware that they’ve been redirected to Instacart. This erodes brand equity for retailers.

An online discussion Maru hosted with a group of senior consumer goods marketing professionals echoed these sentiments. There’s no denying the convenience of online shopping, but do brands harness the power of scale through a third party like Amazon or Instacart, or do they build their own DTC platform? This is a question many brands are contemplating. Those without strategic thinking see e-commerce as a cost rather than a long-term investment. Failure to make the right long-term investment decisions can result in loss of control and you may end up locked into short-term partnerships that have vested interests not aligned with your goals. A question plaguing companies trying to build the best e-commerce solution is, “How do you make the right investments?” Data is part of the answer. It’s a superpower in e-commerce, but many retailers are not using it. Besides suggestive selling, data is crucial for product movement and category management.

Target scanned the online horizon and created Shipt. Based on customer feedback, they introduced a preferred shopper list. If customers give a personal shopper a five-star rating, they can add that person to a list so they can be their shopper again. This feature has resulted in more frequent orders from shoppers, less customer service issues, more tipping, and higher ratings for the service. Pepsi built its own snacks e-commerce site where it can test reception to new products. It can find the hits and misses on consumer palates with its brand fans, then put the successful concoctions into mass production. Both these brand-built platforms have allowed them to deliver a consistent experience and meet consumer expectations.

Emotional Signature for online customer experience

Pictures explaining what six emotional signatures are: content, stimulating, nurturing, happy, cooperative, and energetic.
Qualities consumers look for in an e-commerce site.

Creating the ideal CX people seek

How do retailers create that e-commerce yellow brick road? They give the people what they want. Maru’s Emotional Signature, a proprietary System 1 (unconscious) measurement, uncovers the deep-rooted feelings about how an e-commerce experience should ideally feel versus how customers are left feeling after the experience. Ideally, shoppers under 35 years of age want an independent and uninhibited experience that gives them more opportunities to curate their own experience. They want the tools and features to choose what they want whenever they want it, which in turn energizes them. The online shopping experience should leave them feeling empowered. This includes smart, predictive search functions, trackable purchases, and the same experience across devices — desktop, tablet, mobile. Consumers 35 and over, lack confidence using the online tools and find the experience foreboding. Their ideal experience is nurturing — a platform that is vested in them now and in the long term and people who will always be there for them. This means getting support or help along their online purchasing journey that will give them confidence in what they are doing and make them feel they have the skills to accomplish their goals (be capable). It translates into helpful, knowledgeable associates and customer service personnel, and a smooth online experience.

Two graphs showing the current customer experience versus the ideal customer experience for 18–34 year-olds, and those 35 years of age and over.
How e-commerce sites make consumers feel versus how they ideally would like to feel.

Currently, this is not how many e-commerce experiences make consumers feel. Younger customers feel platforms have a manipulative control, while older consumers may see online retailers as authoritative with one-sided power over them. Outsourcing the e-commerce portion of the business which retailers cannot control is unlikely to energize consumers; often it will alienate them. The same is true of brand-built online solutions that leave customers with inconsistent service — consumers expect fast and pleasant online shopping experiences. They are frustrated by incorrect orders; out-of-stock items with long fulfillment timelines; delayed or lost parcels without updates; notices of items ready for pickup sent just before closing time; not being able to purchase an item online when it appears on the retailer’s website and having to go to a bricks and mortar store; customer service that cannot quickly rectify issues; and more.

A winning e-commerce strategy

Loved brands have mastered a consistent, positive experience, which involves investing in a branded look and feel, living up to messaging, user-friendly online platforms, a strong service culture, knowledgeable staff, a helpful tone that employees take with customers, quick resolution of issues, and responsiveness through social listening. Their digital contact is quick and responsive.

Brands hoping to further their relevancy, regardless of their size, must offer a seamless experience throughout all touchpoints of an online purchase. This is the only way they can ensure quality interactions for consumers at each step. Next, they use the data they collect to help them drive continuous improvement. By implementing this strategy, brands can protect and build their equity in the hearts and minds of consumers.

Maru recently evaluated over 4,000 touchpoint interactions across the e-commerce journey of 20 leading e-commerce websites to pin down what makes an extraordinary digital customer experience. Read more about this study here.

A thumbnail of the white paper titled Defining the extraordinary digital customer experience.
Maru’s e-commerce study

Originally published at on June 2, 2022.



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