Why Walmart.com Needn't Care About Improving Prices

To make shoppers happier, Walmart need not improve its pricing, Amazon can leave Web site functionality as it is and CVS's content is just fine the way it stands. Welcome to the highly nuanced—and seemingly non-intuitive—world of ForeSee's online shopper satisfaction survey.

What makes ForeSee's report worthy of study is that it doesn't take 24,000 shoppers' answers on their own. Instead, it compares the responses to multiple similar questions and then compares those answers to what other similar shoppers said. In effect, it draws conclusions that are sometimes are odds with an individual's answer.

Let's look at this with a political survey analogy. The typical national poll asks registered voters who they are likely to vote for and then reports the answers directly as, for example, "56 percent of the voters surveyed said they would vote for Candidate A."

What ForeSee does is much closer to, "Yes, 56 percent of registered voters said they would vote for Candidate A. We then asked them asked them about their views on key social and economic issues, their feelings about change, whether they are demographically similar to Candidate B (father of similar age, children of similar age) and their thoughts on global warming and religion, and they gave very different answers to the candidate question. Given all of those answers—and the answers that others have given, plus who they ended up voting for—we're predicting this guy will end up voting for Candidate B, despite the fact that he said he wouldn't."

Many consumers have no idea of the real reason they make a particular purchase. Was it the strong price and product functionality? Or was it the cumulative effect of 20 billboards from the last six months and nine colleague comments over the last three weeks?

Most importantly, though, the ForeSee report differentiates between an area where a retailer's site could improve and become more attractive to shoppers and an area where such a change would likely have a material impact on shopper actions.

Walmart, for example, could always be strengthened revenue-wise (if not margin-wise) by lowering prices. Given that it's already perceived as having low prices compared with most rivals, however, knocking a few extra cents off a box of cereal isn't likely to help much.

That same type of discounting, though—according to the ForeSee report—could have some major revenue-boost potential for sites where pricing is not perceived as that strong; for example, Office Depot, Buy, HSN or Overstock. Again, the report was not addressing whether or not those sites in fact have stronger or weaker prices. It spoke solely to shopper perceptions.

The ForeSee report simply said that pricing improvements would help those four sites, along with 1-800-Contacts, Efollett and The Exchange (shopmyexchange.com)—but no others.

ForeSee CEO Larry Freed said the differences between where a site may need to improve and where such improvements will likely make a difference is vast. "Apple is a great example," he said, pointing to the company getting the lowest score on price but also being the site that would be less helped by price changes.Apple has so aggressively positioned itself as a quality must-have product that price cuts not only might not help but could actually undermine the company's quality pricing strategy. ("Who wants an $80 iPhone? Must be a really low-end version. I deserve a $500 phone. Maybe a high-end Android is worth looking at.")

The company was also referenced as one of the sites that had the largest decline since 2005, a three-point hit. The problem with the fruit-named phone and computer maker? As it sharply increased the number and variations of its products, Apple's site went from logical and easy to follow to confusing. (It named one of its iPads "the new iPad." Really?) Product naming and a site not designed to make it easy to differentiate products and choose the intended one caused the drop in satisfaction.

"Apple's dropping; it makes all the sense in the world," Freed said. "They expanded their product choice," and it became confusing to pick a specific desired model online.

Another area the ForeSee report focused on was site content, which is defined as "perceptions of accuracy, quality and freshness of information." It was seen as an area of meaningful improvement for nine sites: Dell, Efollett, Football Fanatics, Gap, PC Connection, PC Mall, Shop, Tiger Direct and Toys"R"Us.

Like so much else in E-Commerce, the logical rational approach can be at odds with marketing. The rational content approach is that shoppers want to know as much as possible about a product. "People want to understand the sizing, what the material is," Freed said. But in apparel, for example, such details can undermine the sale psychology.

Detailing the fabric, the stitching technique used and the number of buttons reinforces the fact that the product is just a shirt, whereas marketing wants to portray it in emotional terms: It's happiness, power and sex appeal for a mere $49.95. Describing—borrowing from the Ann Taylor site—shirts as Alpine Apple, Lemon Fizz or Inkwell Blue won't hurt. But the more the site speaks of cotton versus polyester, the more the psychological magic is broken. (And don't even get me started on describing the working conditions of the factory used to make the shirt.)

"That's the fashion designer's view: It's emotion. It's an image," Freed said. In short, having insufficient content details might not be an error as much as a strategy.

The most common area for meaningful improvement in the ForeSee report was merchandise selections. It recommended merchandise improvements for 65 sites, including Amazon, Ann Taylor, Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, Footlocker, Gap, JCPenney, Kohls, L.L. Bean, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Office Max, Saks Fifth Avenue, Sears, Target, Walgreens, Walmart and Williams-Sonoma.

The next most common suggested area for improvement was site functionality, which was recommended for 28 sites, including Abercrombie, Apple, Costco, Crate and Barrel, CVS, Home Depot, Lowes, Macys, REI and Staples.