Forrester's Harteveldt on Retail Web sites: The good, the bad and the engaging

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CHICAGO - Bloomingdale's Web site didn't cut it for Henry H. Harteveldt, a vice president at Forrester Research.

He said the site at www.bloomingdales.com had a lack of images, staid design, lack of merchandising and uses acronyms for product descriptions. He mocked the site's use of the words "casual china" to describe its porcelain offering.

"To me it's a billion people sitting around," Mr. Harteveldt told delegates Oct. 24 at the Forrester Consumer Forum 2006. "Bloomingdale's distinguished in-store experience is missing online," Mr. Harteveldt said.

A positive online experience is growing more valuable as more consumers are using different consumer channels to reach marketers. According to Forrester, 71 percent of North Americans are online today. By 2011 it will be 81 percent.

Forrester research recently found that when completing a transaction, 76 percent of respondents were satisfied with going to a retail location, while more than 50 percent were comfortable using a Web site and 18 percent when using a kiosk.

Fifty-two percent of survey respondents were satisfied with customer service at a retail location, 29 percent when on a Web site and 21 percent on chat or instant messenger with a company representative.

A frustrated customer costs money, Mr. Harteveldt said. At Air Canada, a customer who uses its kiosk to check in costs only 16 cents. That same customer checking in with an agent costs $3.

Yet failure to humanize digital experiences, or make them customer-friendly, can work against marketers. Mr. Harteveldt gave the example of an online video posted by a customer who struggled with an airline kiosk, unable to read the instructions in the glare or even print the boarding pass. The person was hunched and confused.

"The customer is your policeman," Mr. Harteveldt said. "They're going to keep you honest. They're going to embarrass you."

So what is a humanized digital experience?

The consumer's ability to configure the Volkswagen Rabbit online was an example that was used. The site is available to all, meaningful to one - the new Forrester mantra for humanizing digital experiences. Netflix's reviews and ease of movie lists also won points.

Empathetic, empowering and engaging were three words Mr. Harteveldt told the audience to remember.

"These are all emotional words," he said, citing the examples of Manolo Blahnik shoes and the Big Bertha golf club from Callaway - all items desired.

"And what is desire but the ability to go beyond logic?" Mr. Harteveldt said. "This isn't about the head, it's about the heart."

Empathy worked in E*Trade Mortgage's case. When invited to chat, 13 percent of consumers who did so went on to complete the transaction. Likewise, Travelocity's focus on what's best for the customer, and not just itself, is helping the company, Mr. Harteveldt said.

His recommendations were simple relating to experience creation. Give consumers control. Offer validation, perspective and support. Don't overlook the small things.

Also, use an approachable tone of voice. Take JetBlue's kiosk phrases like "What' up?" "Hi there" and if there's a problem, "Alas" versus Alamo Rent a Car's call to "Submit" details on its kiosk.

"The best experiences allow people to take their own paths," he said.

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