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How Retailers Can Improve Their Online Reputations

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Brick-and-mortar retailing is back with a vengeance. In 2021, retailers opened more stores than they closed for the first time since 2017. More shoppers visited stores on Black Friday than they did in 2020. A number of big brands such as Macy’s and U.K. brand WH Smith are returning to profitability after enduring a bruising 2020. But retailers also face challenges. According to the 2021 Retail Reputation Report, consumer sentiment is dropping in categories ranging from affordability to service. As retailers emerge from a time of uncertainty and turmoil, they need to mind their online reputations.

Findings from the 2021 Retail Reputation Report

We examined 3.7 million shopper reviews to understand consumer sentiment today compared to before the pandemic. We scoured shopper reviews across their websites, social media channels, and Google Business Profiles. We applied proprietary machine learning algorithms and natural language processing to cover patterns among the vast trove of customer comments scattered across the digital world. We also ranked the leading retailers in the United States and the United Kingdom and analyzed what they’ve been doing right and what they need to improve.

Here’s what we found:

  • Review volume is up 12% from 2020. This is important because 90% of consumers read online customer feedback before making a purchase, and 72% read multiple reviews.
  • Consumer sentiment about retailers has been dropping throughout 2021. The category of product availability showed the biggest drop in sentiment, which reflects a growing concern about the ongoing supply chain crisis.
  • Product affordability was also a major factor hurting consumer sentiment; inflation and higher prices stemming from limited inventory took their toll. 
  • Sentiment in categories related to service, such as courtesy and staff, is dropping. The ongoing labor shortage in retail — another issue that has been in the news — is taking a toll on customer service. 
  • An interesting bright spot — when specific store associates are named in reviews, sentiment shows an increase compared to before the pandemic. The personal human connection is crucial to bringing shoppers back to stores and to improving sentiment.
  • Meanwhile, the top-ranked U.S. and U.K. retailers have something in common— even the cream of the crop does not respond to reviews very well. Across the board, their engagement scores (a measure of responsiveness) were surprisingly low. 

As a result, the retail industry’s Reputation Score has dropped since pre-pandemic days and is remaining flat throughout 2021.

Shoppers Are Concerned about Product Availability

Reviews mentioning product availability/selection have increased throughout 2021, rising from 8.5% of all mentions in November 2020 to 9.5% in October 2021. But of all the categories we assessed, product availability showed the biggest drop in sentiment — 7 points — compared to pre-pandemic days. The rise in negative sentiment reflects the impact of the worsening supply chain shortage. 

Related: Train Retail Workers with CX in Mind

Shoppers Are Concerned about Affordability

The share of reviews mentioning affordability has been stable. The sentiment has declined 2.7 between November 2020 and October 2021. The rise in negative sentiment likely reflects growing concerns about inflation, which is at a 31-year high in the United States. Bellwether retailers such as Target have warned that cost pressures are increasing, leading to concerns that inflation will worsen. But retailers can staunch these concerns somewhat by discussing what they are doing to combat inflation. For instance, Target said that it is absorbing rising costs for now. That resulted in its stock price taking a hit, which also signaled that Target is willing to sacrifice profits to make its products as affordable as possible.

A Retailer’s People Make a Difference

Our analysis uncovered a paradox. On the one hand, sentiment about store associates and service showed a decline in 2021 compared to pre-pandemic days. But sentiment for reviews that mention specific store associates by name showed an increase in sentiment. This is the only category where sentiment increased in 2021 (by 1.2 percentage points). This finding tells us that when store associates provide personal service, shoppers respond positively. Retailers can help themselves by investing in their people and training them to be strong ambassadors of their brands. 

Retailers Are Not Responding to Consumers

Across the board, there is a huge opportunity to engage with customers far more than they are doing. When we ranked the top retailers in the United States and the United Kingdom, we were surprised at how low the engagement scores were. In the United States, five out of the top 10 retailers with the highest Reputation Scores scored in the single digits for the engagement category, and in the United Kingdom, four out of the top 10 scored in the single digits. Retailers need to respond to reviews and social media comments to improve their Reputation Scores.

Related: How Retailers Can Prepare for an Uncertain Holiday Season

What Retailers Should Do

  • Ask for reviews. As we noted in our report, 72% of shoppers read multiple reviews before visiting a retailer. Review volume has a significant impact on locations’ search rankings and Reputation Score. Our advice here might sound counterintuitive. At a time when consumer sentiment is down, would not asking for reviews result in more negative feedback? That’s not the case. We’ve found time and again that people who have a bad experience are more likely to leave a review without being asked than people who have a good experience. Encourage people to leave feedback across the board, and you’ll reach those happy customers who just need a little encouragement to leave a review about their experience. 
  • Be responsive. Responding to reviews demonstrates a commitment to customer experience and helps influence conversations about a brand. Replying to customers’ queries via rapid-response tools such as text and chat improves engagement and service. Consider the fact that text message open rates are 4X that of email. But even the leading retailers with the highest Reputation Scores are not responding to reviews, as evidenced by the low engagement scores that our rankings uncovered. 
  • Learn from feedback to improve. Negative reviews are a signal that something is wrong and an opportunity to improve, and positive feedback helps retailers understand what their stores are doing well. Rely on reviews to flag potential vulnerabilities at the store level. Potential issues can be addressed before they become big problems amid a spike in customer traffic. By learning from feedback, retailers will ultimately improve service and earn more positive feedback, which is important. Per Google, “High-quality, positive reviews from your customers can improve your business visibility and increase the likelihood that a shopper will visit your location.” Accumulating positive feedback means learning from your feedback and improving the customer experience in underperforming stores.  

To uncover more insight about the state of retail in 2021, read our report. Reputation helps local businesses synthesize customer reviews from all over the digital world to improve how businesses operate. Take a look at our Reviews and Review Booster to learn more about how Reputation can help you. 

Keep Reading: Why Reviews Matter During the Holiday Shopping Season

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