The Try-Before-You-Buy Conundrum

All digital D2C brands are up against the same problem: People live in the physical world, no matter how connected we are. We want to see and feel things before we buy them, a fact that’s driven every purchase since we paid for stuff in seashells and animal skins. It’s always driven marketing tactics, from fabric swatches to free trials.

It’s one of the reasons ecommerce still accounts for such a relatively small percentage -- still less than 10% -- of what we spend, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census.

Digital-first brands (and all e-tailers) have always been at a disadvantage, so they’re pushing for new ways to let customers try a product or service before they buy it, whether through tech -- like augmented-reality apps that let me picture that new coffee table in my house -- or by opening conventional retail stores.

New research from RetailMeNot, the online coupon company, says we should expect to see more of this trend, with 63% of retailers saying try-before-you-buy will become more important than buy-online, pick-up-in-store options within the next two years.

And 50% of retailers already have budgets devoted to finding better TBYB options. On the consumer side, 35% say TBYB offers make them consider experimenting with products they hadn’t considered buying online before. By age, Gen X shoppers are more open to the idea (40%) versus millennials (33%.)

“The majority ofretailers really believe this is a new strategy to alleviate customer friction when it comes to shopping,” says Michelle Skupin, who works in marketing and communications for RetailMeNot. “There are just so many things consumers want to touch and feel and try on before buying.”

It’s as basic as ordering items without first paying for them, with the ability to send them back without a charge on your card -- a strategy brands like Net-A-Porter, ASOS UK and ThirdLove have tried. Often, D2C brands are using such offers to reward loyal customers and deepen the relationship.

These apparel brands want to be seen as giant fitting rooms. Stitch Fix has warmed consumers up to the idea that it’s not just OK-- it's desirable -- to return most of its items. The more we reject, it says, the better it will come to know us. This has helped people see returns as a valuable part of the equation, not an unhappy circumstance of picking the wrong size. And it’s made some people see the $20 styling fee as a reasonable price for the experience.

But in an era when many people demand free shipping and easy returns, it’s expensive. Navar, which specializes in returns, says 40% of online shoppers buy multiple items with the intention of returning all but their favorites. By some estimates, return deliveries will cost $550 billion by 2020, a 75% increase from five years ago. That’s led companies like Amazon to cancel the accounts of customers, precisely because they treat it like, well, a giant fitting room.

Skupin thinks TBYB offers may provide a hedge against returns. “It’s a little like saying, 'Take this puppy home for 30 days.’ The hope is most people will just decide it’s easier to keep it.’”

To me, the question is whether consumers will, in fact, find TBYB significantly easier than what they’re already doing. The ecommerce versus physical commerce tradeoff is still there. I can drive to the store, try on all the clothes I want, buying one thing, seven, or none. It’s free and immediate.

With a digital interaction, I try them on the comfort of my own home on my own schedule. But if they don’t fit (and of course, many clothes won’t) I have to go through the hassle of repackaging them and getting them back to the company. I’ll likely pay for it somehow, either with a shipping fee, a restocking fee or both.

Consumers make decisions like that all the time, but their internal math is changing. My hunch is that people are becoming more demanding of all digital transactions, conditioned by the rush to return and inspired by new tech that makes lunch as easy as “Hey Google, get me some tacos.” TBYB will help, but DTC brands need to do more to bring shopping to life.

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