How customer preference is shaping online commerce
By Lena Singer | Illustration by Nicole LegaultDavid Chookaszian & Steven Szaronos
Most online retailers work from the same model: You see something you like, click on it, type in your credit card number, and hope for the best. But lately a growing number of web-based shops are adding value for the customer — whether that means shifting the burden of choice away from the buyer or crafting products that are made to their specifications.
David Chookaszian '13, with his father and brother as partners, founded the online boutique Urban Offering in 2011 to provide men with custom-made clothing without a trip to the tailor. Rishi Prabhu '11 and Steven Szaronos '11 started sending their Boxes of Awesome — handpicked monthly deliveries of high-end men's specialty goods — through their site, Bespoke Post, that same year.
Online specialty subscription and buy-before-you-try services seem to be becoming more popular. Why do you think people are interested?
Szaronos: We started the company because we had a pretty simple insight, which is that guys hate shopping — but they do like to buy things. We hand-select unique boxed packages of full-sized products and send them to guys once a month. Our customer gets a unique, new experience or set of products delivered to his door. If he doesn't like it, he can always skip it. Either way, he can just sit back and relax.
Chookaszian: People are very comfortable with purchasing online. I think that comes from having a history of positive experiences. Over the past 10 or 12 years, the technology has improved and people have become accustomed to that different way of decision-making.
How do you manage buyers' expectations about your products, especially in the digital space?
S: Photography is really important. If you're not going to see the boxes in person, we're going to show you a lot of big images at different angles. We also like to tell the story of the items and why we chose them.
C: We try to make sure that our new customers understand that [making a custom garment] is a complex process. We tell them that it may not be perfect in the first fitting, but that's normal and the benefits outweigh the frustrations. For any customer, if the garment doesn't fit or he isn't satisfied, we'll pay for additional tailoring or he can return it.
Without face-to-face interaction, how are you getting to know your customer?
S: Through the site, we already collect a lot of information based on where people live, what they're opting into, and what they're opting out of. But we're starting to focus more on learning about our members through personality profile questions like, 'What magazine would you pick up when you're at the dentist's office?' The idea is that over time, when customers log in to the site, we'll already know a little bit about what they're interested in. And when we select boxes for them, or when we curate a new box for the month, it will feel like a dead-on hit.
C: To an extent, we do have that kind of interaction with our customers. So even though I'd say that, at this point, we aren't very sophisticated at learning more about them through the online channel, we can continue to have a very strong in-person presence.
Interviews condensed and edited for clarity.