Monday July 11th, 2011 - 7:36AM
Imagine the following scene: A woman stands near the small electrics aisle in a discount store. As customers peruse the selection, the woman advises them not to buy a specific coffeemaker on the shelf, claiming it makes terrible coffee.
Hard to imagine, right? There’s a good chance store personnel would insist the naysayer stop or leave.
But such public criticism is encouraged by the democratized online shopping world, in which user reviews have become the preferred buyer’s guide. Some 90% of respondents to a recent survey by e-tailing group PowerReviews said online reviews affect their purchase decisions, with 60% indicating such reviews are the most important factor.
It’s a digital-age blessing for products when positive reviews provide the type of free-flowing, sales-driving goodwill a costly traditional media campaign couldn’t guarantee. It’s a digital-age curse when negative reviews go viral.
Either way, the online user review often is lauded as the ideal example of open, unfiltered consumer advocacy.
Yet it’s hardly impossible that suppliers, posing as neutral consumers, have planted positive reviews of their own products or negative reviews of competitive products. Consumers also can be foggy with the facts. One supplier lamented a recent review blasting the defective batteries in one of the company’s products. One problem: That product didn’t use batteries. Online browsers who stay away from the product because of the faulty review will never know.
Who polices that? Sites often allow for rebuttals, but a supplier trying to defend a negative review, however justified, often comes across as just plain defensive.
User reviews are an inescapable reality of web retailing. Many reviews, maybe most of them, have merit. Their often-anonymous influence, though, is dangerous if their credibility goes unchecked.
E-tailers that invite reviews have a responsibility to their customers, their suppliers and themselves to manage such content as they would any other piece of information they allow on their sites.
Nobody is calling for the manipulation of reviews. Make transparency of all reviews the goal. Web merchants must carefully screen and qualify reviewers. They should permit reviews only by customers who post their real names and perhaps only by those who bought reviewed items from the respective sites, all of which is verifiable by transaction records.
Where possible, give suppliers an opportunity to respond directly to reviewers, positive or negative, in an attempt to refine or restore consumer relations.
Suppliers, meanwhile, shouldn’t ignore bad reviews or dismiss them as ignorant. Consistent negative feedback can signal a real product or marketing flaw.
Online user reviews have the potential to become an effective instrument for improving the overall quality of goods. The reviews can send a frank, public message to retailers and suppliers that consumers won’t tolerate shaky quality at any cost, and that they’ll gladly tell whomever is listening if you let them.
Consumers have always voted with their dollars. Now they get to vote with their keyboards. Brick-and-mortar stores wouldn’t be expected to continue products with high return rates, so why would e-tailers continue products that get consistently poor reviews?
The objective is supposed to be a selection of quality and value that minimizes the odds of negative reviews.
Still, the democracy of online forums for consumers to review products is commendable and helpful... as long as e-tailers and other online user review resources do everything possible and reasonable to separate fact from fiction and ensure such reviews are reliable.