One of the most rewarding moments you can have as a merchant is seeing a total stranger walk down the street wearing a product that you helped to create. You know everything about the product – the cost, the color code, the reason why it shipped two weeks late  – and yet, you don’t know very much about the person wearing it.

One of the expectations of the merchandising job function is to translate trends into something that will resonate with your brand’s customers. This mandate requires a deep understanding of who she or he is – and yet, resources for actually communicating with customers are relatively sparse in the industry.

On top of that, the resources that merchants have traditionally leveraged to “befriend” their customers each carry considerable downsides. A few examples…

(1) Customer Intercepts – for brands who have physical stores or are sold through retailers, merchants can actually go to those locations and talk to the people browsing and buying their product.

The downside? Can feel slightly awkward – not to mention a little invasive. They are also time and cost intensive and rarely provide a representative sample of the customer base.

(2) Focus Groups – merchants can hear first-hand feedback on product in development when customers attend formal focus groups.

The downside? These groups can often be biased by the loudest person in the room. Also, merchants often are not engaging with customers directly, they are led by a trained facilitator. Similar to in-store intercepts, they can be costly, inefficient and skewed.

(3) Persona Creation — generalized archetypes of your customer to help personify those behind your sales.

The downside? “Sally Suburbia” isn’t a real person. You can’t talk to her or relate to her. These are often created with marketing teams in mind, not merchants, and it can be hard to apply the persona information to product assortment decisions effectively. In the same way that technology has changed our personal access to social networks (think about all of those old high school classmates you’d know nothing about if it weren’t for Instagram), technology should also be changing the way that merchants interact with their own customers.

In the same way that technology has changed our personal access to social networks (think about all of those old high school classmates you’d know nothing about if it weren’t for Instagram), technology should also be changing the way that merchants interact with their own customers.

Although merchants cannot yet friend request everyone who buys a sku of their sweater, we are beginning to see small shifts toward the use of technology in this space. A few examples…

(1) Website Data, including:

(a) Product Reviews – a treasure trove of direct customer feedback available to everyone! Rent the Runway takes reviews a step further by having customers upload a photo – enabling their team to truly see who is behind the rental

(b) Search history – most ecommerce teams can easily pull a weekly list of top search terms within the site. Merchants should know how customers approach discovery on their site as well as the items they are looking for that are not offered within the assortment.

(2) Chat Support – we are starting to see more and more communication between brands and customers happen pre-purchase. In fact, Bonobos CEO Mickey Onvural says that 45% of online customer interactions happen before a credit card is entered – including many questions around what they should wear with a certain item or how a pair of pants will fit (credit: If brands featured their merchandising teams once a week on chat – enabling them to directly answer product or styling questions – it would be a win-win, opening up the lines of communication between maker and buyer.

(3) Digital Feedback – the merchandising teams that we work with at MakerSights are able to predict how future products will sell by inviting customers to co-create through a quick, 90-second feedback experience. In addition to a product rating, many merchant teams also take this opportunity to engage their customers in conversation – asking why they like or dislike a particular style, for example. With MakerSights, merchants are typically seeing hundreds of responses from customers around the country – or even around the world – within hours.

In addition to having a forward-looking data point to help guide product development and buying decisions, we hear anecdotally from merchant teams that one of the most powerful aspects of MakerSights is the ability to converse with thousands of customers, unlocking access that has previously been unavailable.

  • A global footwear company wanted to update a core style with a fresh palette, but they weren’t sure how customers would react to some of the newest colors. Not only did the lilac show up as the colorway with the greatest demand, customers wrote comments to the merchants expressing their excitement for this fresh trend.
  • When looking to take a new direction aesthetically, one of our brand partners first tested the looks with their customers. The response was clear – loyal customers were turned off by the newest designs and didn’t feel like it was in line with what they hoped to see from the brand. The consistent, emotional response helped the internal team decide to reconsider such a dramatic shift.  

Ultimately, unlocking opportunities for those at the heart of product creation to better understand their customers is critical. Expectations from customers have never been higher for brands, as they have more choice and less loyalty than ever before. Give them a reason to choose you by getting to know them better than your competition.

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