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Staples puts online offerings up for review


FRAMINGHAM, MASS. pioneered the practice a decade ago. Today, online reviews are gaining broader acceptance among major retailers, with the likes of Wal-Mart, Target, Macy’s, The Sports Authority and now Staples offering customers the benefit of knowing what other consumers think of the product they are investigating for purchase. —The notion of a retailer empowering consumers by allowing them to post online product reviews was a radical idea when

Staples added online review functionality last month, and now, as its Web site becomes populated with consumers’ opinions, customers can learn what others think about products the it sells. Customers already are sharing their views on the most mundane items, as Staples solicited opinions via email to those who bought products online. As was the case when let people voice their opinions about books and music, Staples is seeing a mix of good and bad reviews.

Three customers who submitted reviews for a Staples desktop/handheld stapler called the product “terrible,” and said they would not recommend it to a friend. Conversely, those who bought the Staples brand one-touch stapler hailed the product as “the best,” “so easy to use” and “this is the one to buy.”

Such is the world of online reviews where those who share opinions tend to either love or hate a product, according to Darby Williams, vp of strategy with PowerReviews, the company whose systems power Staples’ online review program. “Seeing some balance is critical because if consumers see nothing but positive reviews they become skeptical,” Williams said.

To achieve that balance, PowerReviews relies on what is known as a tag-based system of collecting information from only those consumers who bought the product. “We are able to verify that they purchased the product because each review is submitted by someone who has gone through the system by responding to an email.”

In that way, the system differs from , where anyone can submit a review whether or not they read the latest “Harry Potter” installment or listened to the newest Justin Timberlake single. The other key difference is related to how reviews are compiled: rather than provide opened-ended narratives that require users to display creative writing skills, Staples’ tag-based system prompts reviews with a series of multiple choice questions designed to extract information that will have value to other potential consumers.

For example, product reviewers complete an online form where they are asked about the pros and cons of the item they bought, the product’s best uses, their primary use of the item and whether or not they would recommend it to a friend.

According to Williams, such distinctions are important because they put a reviewer’s comments in context. For example, the comments of a customer dissatisfied with a feature-laden, 10-megapixel digital camera can be insightful if that reviewer describes him or herself as a beginner who intends to use the product occasionally. Although negative, the review could be useful to a more experienced photographer looking for a full-featured camera.

“The other big advantage…is [that] you can easily summarize the most often cited pros and cons…[and] best uses and the types of people that bought the item,” Williams said. “That way, instead of reading dozens of different reviews, you can glance at a summary of all [of] the reviews.” Space is provided for consumers to give a narrative description.

Staples is the first office products retailer to implement a product review functionality. “Staples is always looking for ways to make it easy for our customers and we see product reviews as a key step in making their buying experience faster and better informed,” said John Giusti, vp of Staples Business Delivery.

If consumers are better informed and the online experience is faster, it would stand to reason that there is a sales benefit to adding user reviews. “It is not easy to demonstrate the impact on sales because other factors such as the design of the Web site and the marketing spend have an impact,” Williams said. “We are investing a lot of time with some of our larger customers to isolate out the effect of customer reviews.”

Although the impact of user reviews can be difficult to quantify, retailers who embrace the concept are simply enabling the type of word-of-mouth communication that has always existed among consumers. The Internet simply facilitates and accelerates the exchange of information and presents it to consumers when they are most receptive to being influenced by the opinions of others.

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