The limits of e-commerce and how to overcome them to build brand loyalty

Back in 2016, we were looking for a new sofa, to replace the one we had, and after a lot of research, decided on the Apollo, on Urban Ladder. We have already purchased a lot from Urban Ladder and it was our default choice to buy a new sofa too.

The sofa we selected was made-to-order on Urban Ladder, and after the order, it took about 20 days for it to be delivered. Only after it was delivered did we realize that we had a smaller-than-usual sofa that we are clearly not used to (at least in comparison to what we had earlier). After spending upwards of Rs. 50K and waiting for it to arrive for 20 days, we were staring at something we did not like, in our living room.

It was a tough situation to be in. But we realized the limits and perils of e-commerce very clearly at that point.

We may think we have become completely accustomed to e-commerce since almost everything we buy is via online channels. The e-commerce industry has truly gone several steps ahead and how they handle size-centric purchases because that’s where most disappointment stems from.

Zappos started that process with an incredibly generous returns policy that enabled people to never be disappointed with wrong size shoes ever again. After all, living in wrong-sized shoes is a nightmare.

For most clothing and personal items that need a correct fit, you could return and get the right size if things go wrong. There are still some categories that do not accept returns/replacements – like innerwear. So if you ordering underwear, banian, or socks, please make sure you measure yourself perfectly before ordering. To be fair, even if you buy them offline, you cannot get them replaced.

Nowadays, almost every product mentions size-based dimensions in the listing. I had purchased a voltage stabilizer on Amazon a few years ago. The spot on our home wall where it’d need to be mounted, below the air conditioner, is fairly small. The electrician who removed the earlier, conked-off stabilizer told us specifically to not bother buying it from a nearby store offline (there are many electrical shops near home) and order it online on Amazon and mentioned that I need to check the dimensions to be able to fit that into the space we have. I wrote about that experience last year, in April.

But, despite checking the dimensions online and mentally visualizing it for your needs, we still erred with our sofa! Urban Ladder had every kind of dimension listed about the sofa on its website. And yet, the size of the actual seating area was smaller than what we were used to, and that caused disappointment.

So, we are looking at our brand new sofa with intense dismay. Urban Ladder doesn’t have returns for reasons like ‘disappointment’, only for legitimate reasons like damages. This is entirely fair – that’s how it works even with an offline furniture purchase.

But, I still looked-up on Urban Ladder with the awareness of the dimensions of the Apollo variant and figured that the Adelaide variant would be a better fit in terms of the size of the seating area.

I wanted to see if there’s any way I could help me replace Apollo with the Adelaide (which was more expensive than the Apollo). So I wrote to the person I knew at Urban Ladder via Twitter direct message (not a public tweet).

After a couple of conversations, they agreed to get the Apollo replaced with the Adelaide and I just have the bear the cost of upholstery (under Rs. 10K) because they couldn’t find a customer who was looking at the same configurations for an Apollo at that time. That worked more than adequately for me and I’m writing this seated on our 4-year-old Adelaide that we are very, very happy with.

This is exceptional service from Urban Ladder and also an exception to the norm. I also understand that this kind of service cannot be scaled, but it made us totally loyal to Urban Ladder. Almost every piece of furniture at our home is from Urban Ladder, as a result.

I doubt if I would trust the new entity under Reliance with the same level of loyalty, however.

On a related note, our 15-year-old LG Microwave oven conked off last week. Given how essential it is every day we quickly looked for a replacement on Amazon and ordered a Whirlpool Solo oven (since we had a separate OTG too that made a full-fledged oven redundant). We had checked the dimensions of the Whirlpool oven the way we did with the Apollo sofa – external dimensions were listed on Amazon to help us figure if the space we have the place the oven matches. It did.

It arrived the next day and we figured that the mouth of the open was smaller than our older LG oven and that disrupts a large part of how we use the oven! Had we purchased this offline, in a white goods store, my wife and I would have been able to better gauge the size of the oven’s mouth (which wasn’t even mentioned specifically in the online listing), that too next to an oven that fits our current model’s size.

I had not specifically checked the returns policy for the oven assuming that “It’s Amazon after all. If something was wrong, I could always return it”. That was my level of trust on the platform.

When I went to the returns page, to my dismay, I noticed that this product only had a replacement policy, if it was damaged or malfunctioning. No returns! I chatted with a customer care person and he reiterated the policy.

We were in the ‘Apollo situation’ all over again!

I was so not ready to keep this oven that I put it up for sale on a tweet, taking a loss of Rs.500+ so that I can order the larger sized solo model from Whirlpool (costlier by Rs.2K).

Someone suggested to me on Twitter that I should try a second time with Amazon and that it seemingly works! So, I tweeted to Amazon explaining my situation, but without much hope, since they were right and I was literally asking for an exception to their policy.

But Amazon being what it is, emailed me within the next 2 hours, offered me a refund as an exception, allowed me to order the larger-sized Whirlpool oven, and the next day when it arrived, the same delivery folks also took back the older product! It was all done so smoothly that I still cannot believe that this episode caused us some dismay/headache!

They could have looked at my past purchases to ascertain I’m a frequent buyer and also a genuine customer and that’s entirely fair, of course.

Much like Urban Ladder, I can’t even look beyond Amazon for any kind of online purchase anymore. To be honest, the same larger-sized Whirlpool oven was available on Flipkart too, and at a discount of Rs.200, compared with Amazon. But I didn’t even feel like saving that sum given how consistent and predictable the service aspect is on Amazon!

So yes, there are limits to how much you can take e-commerce for granted. There’s a lot of ‘seeing is believing’ left in our purchase and that’s magnified by the level of detailing in the product descriptions online.

But those limits could also be overcome by superior service that needs personalization and cannot be scaled as a one-size-fits-all (pun unintended) or cannot be a rigid flowchart. And that’s how user loyalty is cultivated!

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