Making online shopping more personal

Sheree Martin with a Lands' End customer service.

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: As the retail world gets ready for the most wonderful -- or at least most important -- time of the year, companies are trying whatever they can to distinguish themselves from rivals. Discounts are pretty much expected by customers. So is free gift wrapping. What to do, what to do. How about offering online video chats with customer service reps? Yeah! That's the ticket.

From Birmingham, Ala., Gigi Douban has more.


Gigi Douban: The thing about shopping for jeans is that there are so many choices. Skinny, relaxed, bootcut, boyfriend, distressed. And let's not forget the much-maligned mom jeans. But none of this fazes Sheree Martin. She's one of the brave souls who buys her jeans online.

Sheree Martin: Yes, I'm brave. But I tend to do a lot of online shopping for clothes and I'm pretty good about knowing what fits.

She's shopping for her latest pair using Lands' End's new video chat.

Sound of typing

It takes Martin a few minutes to find the chat.

Martin: OK, so I've asked where I find the link when I request a chat, and I'm waiting for a reply.

Finally, Madison appears. She's a customer service rep. It's a one-way video chat, so Sheree can see Madison. But at first, we can't hear Madison. Turns out Madison's headset was muted.

Martin: Oh, I'm hearing something.

Madison: Is it...

Martin: Now, we're...

Madison: ...any different?

Martin: That works. Hi Madison, I'm Sheree...

Once we connect, Madison is all ears, bright-eyed and nodding. She schools Sheree about the intricacies of vintage jeans.

Madison: So you like sort of a midtone? I think the vintage indigo probably is the middle of the road.

Martin: OK.

Madison: And you know the rinsed is really dark.

Lands' End is owned by Sears Holdings Corp., which has been experimenting with new online retail models. The key demographic for Lands' End is women 35 to 54. It's a group comfortable with the idea of e-commerce but still prefers face-to-face interaction.

Joan Conlin oversees customer service for Lands' End.

Joan Conlin: So when you think about shopping and you have that person in the store, retail store that's helping you out, it's kind of that experience that we wanted to emulate.

Which for video sales reps means no smirking, no quiet huffing, definitely no rolling of the eyes. And that's part of what makes video chat a bit risky, says Wendy Liebmann, analyst and CEO of WSL Strategic Retail.

Wendy Liebmann: Well it's risky like Skype, you could look really ugly that day. That could be a worry. You've got to have your lipstick on straight.

Mostly though, Liebmann says video customer service reps need to be able to answer questions quickly so that ultimately, customers buy something, just like in a real store.

Liebmann: I think it is about trying to engage their customers in a contemporary kind of way.

Over the coming months, Lands' End will be rolling out video chat kiosks at real stores, including Sears. But until they switch to two-way video capability, which they say they might one day, they still can't answer one question: Will these jeans make my butt look fat?

In Birmingham, I'm Gigi Douban for Marketplace.

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