Let’s say out loud what some salesmen tell us just by their look: they hate the sound of the doorbell and when we go through the doorway to sniff around and ask to be attended, or simply to serve us at the till. We have seen this taken off in many sitcoms where the introverted shop assistant hates all the customers. Moving clichés aside, when you go into a franchise or a small shop, it’s not strange to come across whispering, lack of visual contact, open archives used as little places to hide, or a screen that the aforementioned never stops studying.
The arrival of e-commerce meant a huge advantage for those who didn’t want to sell in person, or to physically deal with customers. Naturally, gigantic chains and large shopping centres kept waging for all the opposite, and for a physical and labyrinthine experience in which customers can easily lose their bearings to find empty information points and unfocused staff in hidden stock rooms. So, why does the TV comic seller hate the business so much if it seems like a videogame?
Ideed, buying is an individual process for the customer and the seller that requires the community’s support from time to time. What do e-commerce customers have to lean back on when everything is made virtual and the shelves, products and shop assistants disappear?
Here is where the scream for help only has two quick answers: the help of our acquaintances, just like what happens in the traditional shopping world, and online reviews. If this is such an important point in the shopping experience, then how is it that there isn’t a more standardised use of the ratings and reviews in e-commerce, like prices are unavoidably included on product descriptions?
The philosophical ecommerce: How to unravel the truth inside reviews?
A democratic and universal system of reviews sadly ends up seen as being little reliable. Thousands of people giving their opinion at the same time and from anonymity against the classic method of offering a few mediators and specialists, who theoretically manage the matter they are dealing with better than anyone. However, a huge amount of studies reveals that one of the main shopping criteria (if not the most important) is not the criticism by experts; it is the reviews from normal individuals who sign with or without a pseudonym.
The alarm call would express its doubts immediately: what would be the way to control a mess in which it is impossible to distinguish which opinions are true, and which ones are false? Well, we could ask the traditional shop assistant this: are you really being honest when selling us the superior qualities of this 200€ bottle of wine? The question of honesty in the reviews is turning into the centre of a debate that seems to jump to moral questions before e-commerce efficiency.
In 2015, Amazon started to fight back and report users who had supposedly left reviews on products that were not bought or tested, or on books written by friends. Many of these cases are certainly false (and so obvious that they stand out to any user), but Amazon unfairly censored other reviews after using his own criteria and algorithms to decide the honest reviews out of the false ones. What is more important? That Amazon and any e-commerce win the crusade against the false information, or that they dedicate their efforts to improving customer service and quality controls of the products they sell?
The social networks and the communities are taking charge of revealing these public shams, which even come from the company itself on occasions: a Spanish publishing company was recently criticized by readers after including 5 star reviews in Goodreads that consisted of very short opinions from users with a blocked profile or no history for a book that was receiving a very bad reception among its target readers. What influence do fake reviews have that acknowledge having received a free product in exchange for a free review? This practice is more recognised in some fields, like Booktube, or beauty care videos, but it is not mandatory in every country to acknowledge the sponsorship, which therefore makes it clear that the review is 100% free from any influence or not. Websites such as Reviewmeta.com and Fakespot.com, for example, check to see if the reviews of an Amazon product are authentic.
There will always be lies regardless of how any business operates, and it won’t help to try and eliminate them by censorship or to completely eliminate comment sections. For online shop users, it’s as difficult to tell which reviews are false and which ones are authentic, as it is to know which opinions coincide with their own point of view and the results that they are looking for. The ideal solution would be for all users to know when a review is sponsored, just as we know when the shop assistant is working on commission in the company, while he or she is praising our curves within in a certain shirt. But illegitimate reviews are not causing any damage. The more influencing aspect is the way in which an e-commerce business decides to use the impressions of its clientele.
Don’t touch! Products and shop assistants in the digital world
Amazon, for example, uses a verified system of users and purchases to guarantee the users that the review comes from a real use of the product. But what if someone leaves a review for something that was bought from somewhere else? Is it authentic to review a product everywhere, or just in the place where it was originally purchased? An analysis of the product is not usually enough for e-commerce users, as the shopping experience also counts (the condition of the packaging, compliance with delivery conditions, times and returns). Even still, what customers are looking for in many cases is a reproduction of the real shopping experience that they can’t access electronically: what products are like and how they feel, hence the large number of photographs provided by users that question the effectiveness of the photographs and videos of the products supplied by online shops (we are all aware of the tricks used to touch up photographs and the idealization of these photographs against the real product).
Every study provides its own percentages, but a high figure of up to 90% always stands out to make reference to the users who read reviews before making online purchases. It takes practically the same time to read the positive and negative reviews, and users end up trusting them as much as personal recommendations. This influence is even stronger when investigating shops and businesses which are local or close to the user, and with a proven successful record for those that exceed 4 stars with certain conditions (a minimum number of reviews made over recent dates and don’t appear to be fake). Before now, customers only had the expert advice that was available in the shop, which is a kind of assistance that many people avoided and found rather annoying. Now, the validity of opinions is opted for from people who aren’t even seen, so are we sacrificing reliability in order to avoid the fear of physical and visual contact?
The most similar experience that can be offered to an online shop nowadays are the recommendations made by employees or staff with an appearance of greater or lesser credibility: we see this on the back pages of supermarkets’ paper catalogues, or in art museum shops which, until recently, never considered having to convince any kind of visitor who was not an art lover eager for merchandising.
The anonymity isn’t something that only turns out to be advantageous for dishonest users, or for shops and brands that resort to the plan of hiring their five star reviews. Thanks to being able to jump from tab to tab, the average customer doesn’t lose the whole afternoon comparing shop to shop, nor will they feel embarrassed to go back to another one in order to buy something after two or three visits. These smart shoppers no longer trust slogans and they travel beyond the website of an online shop to study all the details of a product. It’s not just the reviews on the shop or the brand’s own website, it’s the hundreds of websites and blogs dedicated to these analyses (and the people who are dedicated to linking them in comment sections).
The most specific reviews inspire more trust than average ratings; for example, the low number of stars in the Apple app is more due to non-users expressing their hate for the brand, rather than a real rating of the efficiency of the application or the service. In order to offer customers a balance of a first look at a large number of reviews, the graphics that divide classifications into categories turn out to be useful, such as those in Decathlon’s online shop (the same system used in books or movies websites).
A crusade against lies: The good cause banner of reviews
Facing the large number of options, another dilemma emerges: how do customers know if a review is appropriate for them? They will have to investigate if their points of view coincide with those of the other user, as well as the values and likings of other places, and perhaps even consider the photo, biography and the purchase history or visits if they are available, like those on Tripadvisor and Etsy. Does this mean that customers apply the criteria of the old physical experience to the online world?
It is like this to a large extent, which means that no brand or shop must relax in this sense or believe that they have the old clientele in their pocket. Suddenly, thanks to e-commerce reviews, buyers discover unknown information about brands that they used to trust: new points of view that can make them change their mind and even provoke them to stop using the products (for example, on discovering that some cosmetics are not cruelty free, that a type of coffee didn’t originate from fair trade, or a food product has toxic additives). The reviews by users are also useful as a window for awareness-raising, encouraging brands to be clean, transparent and show ethical and ecological practices. For example, a regular complaint in the reviews of Spanish fashion brands that present themselves as modern and alternative, consists of discovering that they actually sell garments at high prices but they don’t make their items in Spain, as this occurs in China, and they are not handmade either.
To avoid these situations, many shops don’t make it easy for users: common practice is that there is no comment section for each description, and the “Help us to Improve” section is used to gather information from surveys, instead of complaints or improvements, as is the case with the Spanish clothes shop Kling. This leaves the customer with the only alternative of the mailbox, which implies too much work for the user and doesn’t allow to publicly display their opinion.
Many shops choose not to offer the comment section and ratings because the majority of their products in the catalogue are rotating and perishable, but most of all because it avoids a bad comment marking the description, or they having to block it and being criticised for taking that measure. Amazon recognised that although the number of these reviews was small, their influence and impact could be very negative for the rest of users in general terms, as regards the trust that the site inspires.
But the absence of reviews means that clients have to visit other pages or social networks to get opinions, which can become very confusing and can discourage them from making a purchase. In this way, there is a higher risk of losing customers who go hopping from site to site while they are doing their research, and they may find something alternative and better in that process.
Invisibility or super-strength? The attitude of ecommerce towards reviews
Despite all the fears and disadvantages for e-commerce, it’s advisable to include an opinion section and a simple rating system by means of using stars for each product description, as this transmits a trustworthy brand image that doesn’t fear or respond to customer interaction. By making this option stand out, even in the quick view, it’s easier for clients to know if the product is good, and it encourages them to participate if there is no review (many people love to be the first to do something). Here is where the examples of prominent and exhaustive description reviews appear in Starbucks and the furniture, household items and clothing shop Anthropologie.
In addition, the opinions become practically essential for certain products like those from parents who trust each other when it comes to rating materials suitable for children, as is the case for Disney Store.
Some large companies still don’t follow this example, as certain brands like IKEA don’t offer online purchasing or online ratings yet (that’s currently being tested in some cities), since their aim is to promote the visit in person at their stores, as this is what their sales strategy is based on, making it obligatory to go round the whole circuit, the shop’s labyrinth, the immersive experience that encourages people to buy more products, so that doubts can be turned into whims and potential customers can fall in love with items there and then.
But if Amazon isn’t even able to control the effects of the ratings, what can a smaller retailer do, as his reputation has much more to lose in a sea of competition? Well, they can do exactly what the giant can not offer: a unique and personal service that knows how to respond promptly to any criticism or complaint.
We need to think that it’s more negative for any product description to have a negative review without a reply: to ignore a comment doesn’t give a victory to the brand. Quite the opposite: it will seem like the section hasn’t been read or that the shop does not give any importance to what the customer has to say. The company may react with an apology; an acknowledgement of mistakes; the correction of a design, or some information if this concerns some kind of amendable aspect, and respond politely rather than in some automatic or impersonal way, by offering compensations, advice, and highlighting strong or positive points in exchange. The trend consists of delegating these interactions on social networks, but the website counts when it comes to making purchases, and in the case of a quick reply which leaves the customer feeling satisfied, the company can gain positive publicity on their part.
Although we don’t like acknowledging that customers are always right, it’s true that they always need to be listened to, and to facilitate them with the space to give their opinion without having to hand them the fateful complaint form, or clog up the company’s inbox. There are no half-measures in this debate: How about you? Are you for or against including ratings and reviews for your e-commerce products?