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As we delve deeper, other sensory influences come to the fore: is there an unpleasant odour or does the product or material smell as expected? Does it feel like we thought it would and is this consistent with the product, price and material? Or does the item seem artificial, unfinished or even cheap?
The process used by customers to select what to buy is important to manufacturers because it decides whether high-quality products make it from the shelf to the shopping cart. Product quality is an important feature. And, of course, products should ideally intrinsically communicate the advantages they offer. From functionality to sizes and proportions. From material quality to stability. We’ve all seen the hilarious images of items purchased online that somehow looked quite good on the retailer’s website but totally failed to live up to expectations on delivery. When shopping for clothes online, people now tend to order several sizes at the same time and return the unsuitable ones that they don’t like.
Retailers have to be able to handle the flood of returns. These have a big impact on logistics and the bottom line. It does not always make financial sense for retailers to repackage or reprocess returned goods. This means that some items are disposed of or offered on the secondary market due to their lack of profitability. But the shift in retail channels away from brick-and-mortar retailers towards Internet sellers is also having an effect on products themselves.
Not all elements of the decision-making process alluded to can be mapped online. For example, product images must convey both feel and functionality. And accompanying texts that are as descriptive as possible together with relatively good customer reviews are replacing advice from trained specialists – and are not always up to the task. Different sellers are taking different approaches in light of this.
Some are choosing to invest in sophisticated video technology that provides the information that customers would otherwise get in store on various online channels.
Others are simply turning the tables. They are skipping what cannot be shown and is therefore irrelevant to a sale. For example, they might not put the same effort into the surface finish or the material density. Less emphasis is placed during selling on the feel of the soft toy or wooden plaything in your hand. Packaging and its design are becoming irrelevant, as usually only the product itself is shown online.
This clears the way for more cost-efficient production. It is no longer quality that then determines how things are done, but increasingly price. However, quality-conscious manufacturers are trying to communicate the benefit of their products through brand value and by highlighting their own production and product standards. They aim to build on brand value and loyalty as well as stories and emotions.
Customers are prepared to trust established brands. The promise of quality is then conveyed by the manufacturer rather than the product.
Tests and quality marks are other popular means of building trust. A large number of providers of quality labels have appeared on the market in recent years. In addition to established testing institutes, test houses and private testers also publish their reviews of goods offered online. However, it is not always possible to verify their objectivity or neutrality.
If we consider all of this activity relating to reviewing products offered online, it is clear that the goods and their qualities no longer speak for themselves. Potential customers check out what others are saying – from the manufacturer and reviewers through to testing institutes – and then buy accordingly. Where you can touch a soft toy in a store, feel the quality and softness, take in the smell and judge for yourself various details and the finish, online you have to place your trust in reviews, product images and descriptions. This means that you no longer determine product quality before a purchase based on your own impressions but on a mix of others’ reviews instead.
Customers are thereby giving manufacturers a licence to reduce design and product quality to a level that can be perceived and communicated online. There is no immediate risk online of direct comparability with competing products on the shelf. Therefore, there is an obvious temptation to go for a more eye-catching design at the expense of attention to detail and quality, which are not visible to the customer before a purchase in any case.
Of course, there will still be fantastic, well-designed and smart products. However, these will increasingly be found in special interest and premium markets. In the case of many products, manufacturers will cut back on design depth and value wherever possible. All thanks to online retailing.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Spielwarenmesse eG.
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