- Vente-privee, a French ‘flash’ sale website, doesn’t have a search function – click here to read how it works for them
- MD of consumer markets at CallCredit, Tom Ilube, tells us why new brand Noddle will help to break the barriers of inconvenience
- The other side of the coin: why John Lewis thinks strategic inconvenience is a ‘cheap trick’
Implementing a strategy of customer inconvenience might run contrary to the belief that brands should be about making people’s lives easier, but making life a bit harder for consumers can actually make them feel more connected to a particular product or service.
When applied correctly, inconvenience can be a successful technique to prompt certain behaviour, by discouraging undesirable choices or pressing people to take a different route.
While some businesses might feel uncomfortable about being seen as a difficult brand to engage with, it is in fact a tactic used by many consumer brands, for example dating site eHarmony, fashion website Vente-privee and Boots.
Done well, this strategy shouldn’t feel like an inconvenience to customers at all, but rather a reward for extra effort, or providing something to people they didn’t know they wanted.
The concept can be fundamental to a brand’s business model, for example ensuring that an exclusive service reaches only the right customers. Dating website eHarmony takes this approach, requiring users to take a detailed survey before joining.
For some people, filling out this long questionnaire will be too inconvenient for them, but for those who do the pay-off is that they will join a community of single people intent on forming serious relationships, with the reassurance that casual daters have been weeded out.
EHarmony UK country manager Ottokar Rosenberger says the questionnaire is not merely a barrier to time-wasters, but also a way to improve its service. “It is there for a couple of reasons. We want to get to know our clients, because we match them on compatibility. In order to do that we need to ask those questions.
“The questionnaire was not created to deter people, but because we wanted [only] those who are serious about finding a long-term relationship.”
For eHarmony, making the joining process require effort means people are more likely to find a partner. Refinement of the system, which Rosenberger calls “relationship science”, goes on daily, with a team of seven full-time PhD graduates working on it. The questionnaire is tailored by country, based on research for each.
As a result, eHarmony is now responsible for 5% of marriages in the US, Rosenberger claims.
The fundamental workings of the site once a member starts using it also put up barriers that control customers’ behaviour. Unlike most dating sites, eHarmony does not allow people to search for or browse through other members’ profiles. Instead, it matches people based on the information they have given.
According to Rosenberger, this prevents users from ‘email bombing’ prospective partners indiscriminately. Using inconvenience as a strategy, therefore, improves the online experience for daters.
Creating an air of exclusivity is one of the main reasons for a brand keeping the customer relationship a little bit complicated. ‘Secret’ fashion sales websites, such as Vente-privee, make their deals on premium goods hard to find. This helps to protect the brand equity of upmarket suppliers such as Calvin Klein and Theo Fennell, which may wish to avoid being associated with discounting long-term.
According to co-founder Xavier Court, Vente-privee has 15 million members in Europe and the website receives 2.5 million unique visitors a day, more than two-thirds of them from France. But it never advertises and even its homepage is little more than a login screen, giving no indication of what is available.
Only once they have subscribed do members learn by email that, each day, 10 to 15 premium brands sell their excess inventory through the site at discounts of up to 70% (see case study, below).
While Vente-privee shrewdly puts up barriers to protect its supplier brands, a layer of strategic inconvenience can serve much more serious purposes. Boots’ Prescriptions Direct service, for example, adds extra safeguards to the process of ordering prescription-only medicines online. It means that it is more difficult to obtain, say, erectile dysfunction (ED) treatments such as Viagra using this service compared with competitor websites – but for good reason.
Some websites only require customers to fill in an online questionnaire before sending the customer the order by post. Boots, while also requiring an online consultation, only dispenses ED medication in person after an in-store check-up with a pharmacist.
According to a spokesman, the compulsory check-up is also intended to identify other potential health problems: “Erectile dysfunction shares common risk factors with cardiovascular disease, including lack of exercise, high blood pressure, obesity, smoking and raised cholesterol.
“Men don’t tend to visit their GP regularly and so a consultation for ED with a pharmacist may be an important opportunity for health intervention.”
These checks include measuring blood pressure, heart rate, weight and blood tests.
While Boots might lose some customers who are simply unwilling to face the embarrassment of going into a store, the online service is a compromise between going to a family doctor to report ED and having almost unfettered access to prescription medications.
Finding the balance
There becomes a point, however, when inconvenience stops being a beneficial strategy for brands to follow. Making things too difficult for customers can just be plain annoying and can turn people off your brand.
Retailers have been the walking the thin line between inconvenience and annoyance for years. Some retailers will use escalators to impede shoppers’ progress, making them walk around one floor to the next and taking them past products they didn’t come in to buy.
But according to John Lewis head of retail design, Kim Morris, this is a “cheap trick” and does not benefit either the leisurely browser or the more purposeful shopper (see Retail Design, The Customer’s Journey, below).
“I don’t think customers would feel inconvenienced by having a direct route to get up to the floor they want. What we should not do is lose the opportunity as they land on that floor to make their choice about continuing their journey or stepping off,” Morris says.
But many brands find it hard to find the balance. And when they get it wrong, consumers can be unforgiving. Dating site Match.com was the subject of an investigation by the BBC’s Watchdog programme after customers complained of how difficult it was to close their accounts. Many of them had not realised they needed to phone to cancel their payments, or that just suspending their accounts online meant they would continue to be charged.
Match.com responded that most of its customers were able to follow the instructions to close their accounts by phone. But a Match.com spokesperson told Marketing Week that the site has now decided to allow customers to cancel online as well, adding: “Members like having the choice of speaking to one of our telephone agents or managing their subscriptions themselves.”
In another example, Google has recently been criticised for the inconvenient way it makes people search for news. Previously, entering search terms and then clicking the ‘News’ tab on the top bar of the Google homepage took a user directly to search results for relevant news articles. But Google recently changed this so that clicking the ‘News’ tab takes the user to the Google News front page, featuring the day’s top headlines. This means that users have to type in their news search term again. Clicking other search tabs – ‘Images’ or ‘Maps’, for example – still returns search results straightaway, however.
Comments left on the Google News Blog about the change have been overwhelmingly negative. Asked why Google is directing users to the Google News front page instead of directly returning search results, a spokesman says only: “We’ve added new personalisation features and revamped the way Google News looks and works. Our aim is to make it easy for users to find high-quality journalism.”
So while astutely placed barriers can improve a product or brand proposition, if they represent no additional value to the customer, people won’t see them as beneficial. And the risk is that there will be a competitor willing to knock the barriers down or provide a leg-up to climb over them.
Credit report provider Callcredit is an example of this, offering consumers free lifetime access to their credit reports under new brand Noddle (see Q&A, below).
Breaking the mould
Noddle contrasts with the established business model of charging people for credit reports after a 30-day free trial. But Callcredit managing director of consumer markets Tom Ilube claims people are unhappy with the current deals, according to his research. By offering the same service free, he says competitors will be forced either to do the same or justify charging by adding extra services.
The questionaire was not created to deter people, but because we wanted [only] those serious about finding a long-term relationship
Ilube claims the effect will be to force innovation in a stagnant sector, rather than to blow competitors out of the water: “There may be a music analogy here.
Most music can be downloaded somewhere online for free, yet people still pay for the likes of iTunes. When a free proposition comes along, it shakes up the market but it does not necessarily wipe out the market.”
Another analogy comes from the banking sector, where it is still common practice not to remind people about the interest rates on their savings and how they could get better rates elsewhere. Customers are less likely to switch accounts if they don’t know they are getting a bad deal until they actively decide to shop around.
According to Nationwide head of customer marketing Alex Bannister, account providers shouldn’t be able to get away with this. “We will write to our savings customers every year and tell them what rate they are on and what is available to them.
“It is something that other providers would balk at, because it reveals that a customer could potentially do better sourcing another product, and they would rather customers were kept in the dark, frankly,” he claims.
Customers don’t stay in the dark long, however, when a competitor is determined to enlighten them. Strategic inconvenience is much less effective when there is a more attractive alternative in the market. As with most marketing strategies, putting barriers up works best when the customer can appreciate the benefits.
Case study: Inconvenience and secrecy – Vente-privee
French ‘flash’ sale website Vente-privee launched a decade ago, and has since become a €1.1bn (£920m) brand. It helps upmarket brands sell their remaining stock without degrading their luxury positioning through excessive discounting.
From the beginning, the site has used the strategy of inconvenience for the benefit of shoppers and the brands it sells. Its sales are hard to find as they are behind a registration wall that gives few clues about what lies behind. Sales last only a few days.
Vente-privee co-founder Xavier Court says: “When we [designed the homepage that way] 10 years ago, it was to avoid being listed by price comparison websites. By doing that, consumers could not find the price, so for us it was a more discreet way to sell the product.”
The online members-only service gives users access to private sales averaging 65% off retail prices on clothing, accessories and homewares. But with an advertising budget of zero, members only find out about the site through word of mouth or articles in the media.
Court refers to Vente-privee as a ‘business-to-business-to-consumer’ operation, providing a service both to consumers and to the fashion trade. Discounts are deep, giving shoppers an opportunity to buy premium items at a low price, but in order to maintain exclusivity of its own brand and those of its sellers, prior information about the sales is scarce.
It remains more secretive than many of the competitors that have surfaced in its wake, such as UK-based Brand Alley. Vente-privee’s members get only 24 hours’ advance notice that a sale is about to start, and are told only the name of the brand.
Consumers must work hard to get to products: there is not even a search function on the site to navigate the sales in any way other than by brand.
Nothing of the products or prices is mentioned until the shopper clicks through to the brand’s sale. These last for only a couple of days, and might only come round every six months for a particular designer. Stock, once sold, is not replenished.
“If you want to buy a [discounted] Longchamp product, you can go to a factory outlet in France or there is maybe one in England. Otherwise [the sales are] twice a year on Vente-privee, or you pay full price in a Longchamp store,” says Court.
He argues, too, that the kind of shopping behaviour incited by flash sales benefits the brands. Its customers, and even those who do not buy, will often return to a brand’s own website later and purchase at full price, Court claims. Time-limited discounts also trigger people to buy when they otherwise would not.
“They come very early, at 7am or even 6am in the UK. We have an average of 500,000 people in every store every day. We bring new buyers to brands who would not usually buy, either because they don’t have a store near them or because they hadn’t heard of the brand.”
Tom Ilube, MD of consumer markets at Callcredit, claims new brand Noddle will help to break the barriers of inconvenience.
Marketing Week (MW): How does the credit report industry use the ‘inconvenience’ strategy?
Tom Ilube (TI): Consumers have to give payment details up front [to get credit reports], and then remember to cancel. Even if they do cancel, the company will probably treat the cancellation as giving a month’s notice, then take one final payment [after the 30-day free trial]. Consumers don’t like it very much but they say there is not much they can do about it because it seems to be how the market works.
We asked them, if a proposition existed in the market that was a genuinely free-for-life, no-strings-attached credit report, would they sign up for it. About 67% of people said yes and 88% of consumers who had previously had a credit report said yes. They realised this would be a valuable thing to have.
There are consumers who do like the credit report product but not the proposition. The way it is being sold makes them feel they are being ripped off.
MW: Why have you made consumer credit reports free under the Noddle brand when the rest of the market charges for them?
TI: The request to me was to build a large-scale consumer business. That was key in my thinking of how to tackle this. If the request had been to take the business that is turning over a few million a year and add 10% or 20%, then I might have taken a different approach.
Our research shows that consumers are surprisingly aware of credit reports. But only about 25% of people had ever looked at them, so it was obvious to me that there was some sort of barrier.
The other thing that consumers were not happy about is what has become the norm in the industry – that you get a free credit report that is actually only free for 30 days, then providers start billing you.
MW: How do you expect to make a profit?
TI: We will offer consumers other propositions – upgraded services and cross-sell products – that they can take or not take. If a proportion of them take up these propositions, it will fund the business model. That is essentially the risk that we are taking.
MW: Will this eventually transform the business model of consumer credit reports?
TI: If companies are going to charge the consumer for their credit report, they are going to have to add more value. Either way, the consumer wins because those who keep charging are going to have to innovate and justify why the consumer is having to pay. These companies will no longer be able to rely on customer inertia.
The customer journey
Department stores have weighed the benefits and drawbacks of impeding customers’ journeys for perhaps longer than any other sector. Some stores use more nefarious means than others of keeping their customers browsing, for example making it easier to travel up between floors than go down towards the exits.
But John Lewis head of retail design Kim Morris thinks this is bad practice, which the store would only resort to “over my dead body”.
She continues: “If you are going up, your next escalator will lead you on to the landing point of the next escalator up. What we don’t do is switch direction, so you have to walk around a floor to get to an escalator going in your direction.”
She admits there is a danger that prioritising customer convenience means shoppers are likely to leave by the most direct route, rather than spending long periods in the store browsing. But she says this is preferable to intentionally annoying shoppers. Other techniques must be used to attract their attention and stop them in their tracks.
Morris says: “It is really important that as you get to the top of an escalator, something at the top in the signage tells you what is on that floor. If you want to step off and take a look, you have a clear indication and invitation to that floor.”
She adds that the in-store environment is increasingly seen as the antithesis to online shopping by consumers. Rather than causing people inconvenience, a better way to keep them in store longer is to provide food options and attentive personal service from staff.