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Gaining Shopper Trust Through Advisory Panels: The Nordstrom Way

Opinions can move a lot of merchandise, but they can also stir passion — just ask Nordstrom.

Photographer: Ben Nelms/Bloomberg

Since 2007, the Seattle-based chain has been talking to some 14,000 shoppers, mostly women, to learn what they think about its marketing efforts, services and brand mix. They are part of its Advisory Panel, a community of dedicated customers who for 10 years have provided feedback to help Nordstrom improve its shopping experience.

Nordstrom is among a small but influential group of retailers, including Kroger and CVS Pharmacy, asking shoppers to provide direct commentary in return for their brand influence and other perks. But unlike standard feedback mechanisms, such as random surveys, many of these panels are comprised of dedicated members, each of whom is registered. And these registrations enable merchants to gather a steady stream of data from their most influential shoppers through games, contests and other engagement tools.

More importantly, the panels enable a necessity of any trusting relationship: two-way communications. Nordstrom, for example, connects with its panel members once or twice a month through online surveys, spokeswoman Brenna Sussman said.

“Our community members are some of our most engaged shoppers. It’s always surprising how specific and detailed their feedback is for us,” Sussman wrote in an email. “(It) has helped shape our marketing messages, product selection and shopping services, and deepened our understanding of our customers.”

True Test of Loyalty

The shopper’s willingness to share opinions may also lead to more tested loyalty.

Think about it: When people feel trusted, they are more likely to trust back and become emotionally invested. Research into employee trust, for example, revealed that 50% more of those working for high-trust organizations planned to stay with their employers over the next year; 88% more said they would recommend their companies to family and friends as a place to work.

Many merchants rely on third parties to provide these kinds of shopper-provided insights. Some retailers use Nielsen’s Homescan Shopper Panel, for example, to understand the motivations behind brand sales.

But Nordstrom and others have taken the task in-house, possibly so they could tailor the queries to brand-specific missions and experiences. Nordstrom mailed members of its panel an infographic that shared highlights of what it has learned since the panel launched in 2007:

  • Of its 14,000 members, 90% are female; 48% are ages 35 to 54 and 34% are 55 and older.
  • Most (71%) ranked the opportunity to express their opinions as their favorite Advisory Panel experience.
  • Roughly half (53%) ranked the chance to win prizes as their favorite experience, while 48% like learning about new products or ideas.
  • Loyalty really is a motivator for participation, as 46% of members said their favorite experience on the panel is helping Nordstrom succeed.

Community Rewards: Kroger, CVS and L’Oreal

Other retailers are finding similar rewards in dedicated shopper communities.

Kroger’s MyMagazine Sharing Network is a space where members share feedback and opinions on products, complete surveys that help Kroger better understand them and participate in tailored discussions. In return, members receive special offers, insider access to new content and the opportunity for free products. Members also may qualify to participate in ambassador programs that include activities through which they can earn badges.

The CVS Advisor Panel is a group of registered shoppers who have volunteered to share their opinions in several annual online surveys. To participate, shoppers must be ExtraCare reward members and fill out short profiles that include selected CVS products and services in which they are most interested. Their feedback guides decisions involving products, services and even philanthropy. Members earn ExtraCare rewards and savings that encourage more spending and data sharing.

L’Oreal’s Consumer Participation Panel is designed to gauge reaction to products yet to hit stores. Members who register are provided passwords for access to a dedicated website and surveys. Members can test products at home or at physical test centers in select locations. Once the tests are complete, participants fill out surveys and then wait to receive a package of free, full-size products from L’Oreal and its other brands, including Lancôme, Kiehl’s, Kérastase, Vichy and La Roche-Posay.

3 Steps to Trust, With or Without Members

Gaining trust does not require dedicated shopper communities, though long-term memberships and related activities do assure continuous streams of conversation and the insightful data that travels with them.

For merchants wishing to baby-step the process, there are plenty of short-term trust efforts from which to learn. In one effort, Trader Joe’s recently asked its customers and employees to vote for their favorite products in honor of its 50th anniversary. Trader Joe’s then narrowed their picks to a list of the 50 best, from Sea Salt & Turbinado Sugar Dark Chocolate Almonds to all-natural boneless, skinless chicken breast. 

Regardless, all customer feedback efforts would likely perform better with a few key mechanisms:

A clear objective: Merchants should have sharply defined goals of what they expect the panels to accomplish and help out with. This will help determine reward systems and communication channels.

A ramp-up survey: Tailored surveys should help the brand determine the best-suited, most serious shopper candidates. Questions should reflect the brand’s specific values and appeal for the best-suited candidates.

A next-phase strategy: Along with shopper preferences, the first consumer feedback round may reveal weaknesses in the panel itself. Retailers should use these findings to reinforce what works well and adjust what does not. The best-suited shoppers may not respond to a physical reward, and prefer experiences, for example.

Shoppers like to have a say, and they like being heard even more. Once they recognize that their voices have influence, they are likely to raise them with more frequency and emotion. It’s the foundation of any good relationship.

This article originally appeared in Forbes. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter for more on retail, loyalty and the customer experience.

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