FEATURE1 June 2011

Switched on


Robin Shuker, managing director of ChatCloud, on how online research helped Comet redesign its website in the face of stiff competition.


The challenge
Before the recession the UK’s electricals market was consistently the fastest-growing sector in retail, fed by seemingly endless product innovation and price deflation. But when the downturn came the market slowed dramatically as consumers decided that the old TV would perhaps last another year and they didn’t need a new kitchen after all.

“The methodology developed working together with Comet has shown that new online platforms can open the door for more effective strategic collaboration between client and agency teams”

At the same time, those consumers who were still spending became more discerning in their choices. Consumers had always researched their purchases before, but where previously the main source of information might have been a specialist shop, now it was increasingly the web: reviews, forums and retail and manufacturer websites. The dominant reference point for many consumers was now Amazon.

These were the challenges facing Comet, the UK’s second-largest specialist electrical retailer. The company had spent a number of years working to improve its customer service and revamp its stores, with a new look and feel in 2010.

However, the main point of contact with Comet for most customers is now the website. The company wanted to design its site in line with its new brand personality while applying best practice from purely online players. How could it apply learning from the success of Amazon to the redesign of its own website?

The brief
The brief was to compare the Amazon and Comet shopping experiences, identifying the features that had the most impact on customer conversion and the key initiatives that Comet should develop. It was important to provide evidence to support the case for change and engage all stakeholders in the research programme.

The approach
Using ChatCloud’s range of online research tools, an integrated methodology was developed. This combined both quantitative and qualitative online research, with the client and agency teams working as an integrated unit. The programme included online bulletin boards with the internal team at Comet, online surveys among the Comet customer base and real-time online groups.

At the start of the project it was essential to get the buy-in and contribution of different members of the Comet e-commerce and insight team. So we started with an internal bulletin board, which invited observation and ideas from the whole team. This put the brief clearly in the context of the key business challenges and constraints. Most importantly the bulletin boards highlighted key priorities and new ideas to be explored in more detail in the research programme.

The consumer research began with a quantitative survey designed by ChatCloud, with the Comet team managing recruitment from their own customer base. The findings were then discussed with the Comet team who provided insight based on known customer behaviour from past research studies, website hits and sales. This interim review was a chance to refine the objectives for the qualitative stage in more detail.

A representative sample from the quantitative survey was then recruited to participate in online groups, which explored in more detail customer perceptions of the website, bringing to life the trends identified in the quantitative analysis. All the groups were viewed remotely by the Comet team, who could give the moderator questions to ask in real time. This ensured they felt actively engaged in the project.

Comet has been an advocate of online focus groups for a number of years, applying the technique to a diverse range of projects from proposition and creative development through to website evaluation. The benefits of online groups relative to offline are derived from the freedom of expression that participants enjoy when they are taking part in their own home. This virtually eliminates the negative impact of peer group pressure which is tough for even the best moderators to overcome.

The findings
The results of the survey indicated that price, product information and product range dominate consumers’ decision-making. The qualitative research confirmed the dominance of price, and while Amazon was seen to be the most price-competitive, it was recognised that no single brand is always the cheapest because prices vary at different times, so shoppers look at a number of options and compare prices before committing to purchase. When different retailers offer the same price, convenience of delivery, in-stock information and customer reviews are important secondary considerations.

Amazon was seen to outperform Comet’s website in some key areas, including its search and recommendation functions.

The outcome
The research helped shape the redesign of the Comet website. On pricing, the research highlighted that Comet can attract Amazon customers through a clear and competitive price guarantee as well as tactical special offers, clearances, auctions and so on. Some of these features have already been incorporated into the Comet site.

The quantitative phase clearly identified that, aside from pricing, the quality and delivery of product information was felt to be in need of improvement. This prompted Comet to integrate its own site more closely with its partner review site, Plugged In, to provide customers with more impartial information. This insight on how product information and knowledge should be served up to customers arose from a deeper, qualitative insight, with the quantitative research identifying the issue and online groups helping to find the most appealing solution.

Comet’s Phil Tysoe said: “While combined qual and quant projects are not unusual, I was really impressed by how seamlessly it worked in this instance. Combining the talents of different specialist ChatCloud consultants with the client team and wider stakeholders, working openly together, enabled us to work more flexibly and quickly, and I believe with a better result, than if we had gone with a traditional, large-agency solution.”

A secondary objective of the research was to engage and involve stakeholders in the process throughout; to get expert input during the research as well as to increase the likelihood of action after it. The highly flexible, fluid approach and use of innovative techniques ensured that all Comet stakeholders had their say and got involved. “Writing the research brief via online bulletin boards with a group of stakeholders who are used to communicating with each other online worked tremendously well,” said Tysoe. “There was a real sense of ownership and fun engendered in the resulting research. It was also then easy to encourage people to remotely watch online groups, ask questions directly to customers and remain involved.”

The result of the open partnership between client and agency was “greater insight that has a greater impact on the business because clients are more actively involved in the process,” Tysoe said.

The methodology developed working together with Comet has shown that new online platforms can open the door for more effective strategic collaboration between client and agency teams.

Comet will be exploring the appeal of further new initiatives in online groups, followed up with in-depth usability studies. ChatCloud’s screen sharing platform will be used to look in greater depth at the appeal of specific concepts, and to understand how customers navigate different aspects of the website.