Why is user generated content missing from physical retail?

Photo: Amazon
Jan 24, 2022

Online customer reviews have long been seen as critical to supporting consumers’ purchasing decisions, while online platforms from Instagram to Tiktok and Youtube are increasingly driving product discovery. User generated content (UGC), however, can barely be found in stores.

Bazaarvoice’s “The State Of Retail” study – based on a survey of 8,000 shoppers in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the U.K. and the U.S. – found many consumers would welcome more UGC at the store level.

Asked what retail technologies they are “excited to see implemented,” the top answer — QR codes that can be scanned for contactless checkout (38 percent) — was followed by three UGC-supported offerings:

  • QR codes that can be scanned to read reviews (34 percent); 
  • Virtual displays showcasing other customer reviews, photos and videos (32 percent);
  • Availability of live and up-to-date star ratings in-store based on customer feedback (31 percent).

Online, half of the survey respondents want to see UGC displayed on brand and retail sites and their social channels. Fifty-six percent agreed UGC will be a deciding factor in their future purchasing decisions.

A survey of more than 500 decision-makers who work in retail in the same countries as part of Bazaarvoice’s study found about a third planning to add UGC at the store level, including 34 percent planning to enable in-store QR scanning to access reviews.

At physical retail, experiments in bringing UGC to stores are most noticeable at the Amazon Books and Amazing 4-star formats. Wine sellers, record stores, book stores and outdoor stores such as REI sometimes offer staff suggestions, but customer-generated reviews remain hard to find inside physical stores.

Nor does the in-store experience include access to influencers and social media platforms that offer the online shopper inspiration and discovery.

A survey of 2,500 U.S. consumers from May 2021 by Statista found 54 percent of Gen Zers and 58 percent of Millennials agreed that social platforms were a better place to find out about new products than online searches.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS Do you see a way for user generated content — whether customer reviews or product-related social posts — to play a larger role in the in-store shopping experience? Is part of the problem that UGS is incompatible with regular in-store shopping behavior?

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21 Comments on "Why is user generated content missing from physical retail?"

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Cathy Hotka

It’s not just user generated content … there’s no content at all in physical stores. As someone who enjoyed reading the Lands’ End catalog, I found it odd to see that their presence in a Sears store was simply a table with towels on it. Commentary and reviews could do a lot.

Jennifer Bartashus

As stores become more experiential, a greater integration of user generated content is inevitable. When shoppers are in discovery mode, things like reviews, styling tips, etc. can play a bigger role, and are likely where the growth in bridging the gap between in-store and online will happen, at least initially. If you’re talking about a more transactional type of trip where you want to get in and out — say a grocery store — UGC may still be further away.

Gary Sankary

Best Buy has UGC at the shelf for most of their products. We can see the aggregated customer star rankings, just like the online. They also post a couple reviews and have a QR code on the shelf label to take to you the items online list where reviews are readily available. They also have Consumer Reports or PCMAG reviews on a few items in addition to user content.

What’s the experience like? The star ranking is probably the most useful, and easiest to quickly assess. The actual reviews and QR code … the higher the price point, the more time consumes will spend researching, even at shelf.

Long term, I think we’ll see more of this. As digital and in store experiences become more seamless I expect that UGC will become ubiquitous in the market.

Dr. Stephen Needel

So I go to the shelf and I see a 2-star, a 4-star, and a 5-star item based on a social media platform the store has chosen to use. My first reaction is, “Why is the store carrying a 2-star item?” That would not be good for the retailer. If someone is interested in reviews, Google it — not the store’s responsibility and way too much chance for it to backfire.

Gene Detroyer

Yes — why, oh why, would a retailer carry a 2-star item, or even a 3?

Christine Russo

Back in the day, Digital Signage was a cool innovation — but I do not think adding digital displays with UGC and reviews will be accretive. I believe putting screens into a retail environment when people carry their own screens does not really move the needle. It seems QR codes to content is a decent solution and, due to the pandemic, people are more accustomed to using them. The challenge is for retailers to consistently check the links and content and make sure the correct information is in place.

Laura Davis-Taylor
Those of us in the consultant trenches have been pressing on this topic for well over a decade, if not more. Like anything else, observing culture and human behaviors will guide us to make the right choices, and UGC has become–hands down–THE most important and trusted source for helping shoppers make confident choices. My experience, in full disclosure, has been that many retailers don’t want to make it easily accessible at the shelf because they can’t “control” it. Many like gatekeeping the selling narrative at the point of decision, not letting it run wild by random strangers. They also don’t want to tick off the brands that are paying big money for a key in-store presence that may or may not have good social reviews. All of this makes no sense as we all know, as we hold in our hands the ability to look up any review or price comparison—and it’s irritating that we have to work to get to it. I hope to see this change. On another note, UGC is an incredible… Read more »
Brandon Rael

User generated content and the voice of the customer are as critical as ever for a connected commerce experience. Unfortunately, most retailers have not connected the physical and digital experiences, aside from star ratings on the shelf labels and QR codes. Retailers have made strides in leveraging QR codes and maximizing how to connect consumers with their apps and their social platforms for additional engagement.

There is an opportunity for retailers to integrate smart technologies in the store, including interactive shelves, streaming content via iPad-like devices, and a more interactive and cost-efficient guided experience driven by the customer’s smartphone. As Best Buy, Nordstrom, Target, and other leading retailers have done, they have made their content engaging, informative, and interesting to mitigate the customers from showrooming while at their stores.

There is unlimited potential in leveraging store associate and customer social media content and incorporating that within the customer journey across all channels.

Ananda Chakravarty

UGC customer reviews already have been a significant part of the in-store shopping experience, supported mostly by the fact that mobile phones are so ubiquitous. Shoppers type in the name of the product they’re looking at into any search engine, social media site or even Amazon.com and can quickly pull up comparators, specs about the products they’re interested in or reviews from other customers. Which brings us to the fact that just a year or so ago, a high percentage (>55% according to Forrester) of in-store sales were influenced by online engagement first, especially for specific items to be purchased.

The fact that this is provided by the customer’s own mobile provider in the store doesn’t make it any less impactful. It also shows why stores like Amazon’s 4-star haven’t taken off as the added value is limited. Basically, content and reviews are already embedded in the shopping process.

Lisa Goller

While in stores, we’ve become conditioned to check others’ product evaluations before we buy. Meanwhile, Amazon 4-Star’s entire model is driven by user feedback. To earn trust and sales, more stores will adapt to consumers’ habit of making purchase decisions based on social proof.

Katie Thomas

UGC isn’t needed at physical retail — it will clutter up shelves further and drive consumer confusion. Most consumers cross-shop as it is — they explore in store and then do research online or vice versa. No need to try to cram everything into one experience.

David Spear

Customer reviews and ratings are incredibly influential in consumers’ purchasing decisions, but retailers have been slow to adapt. As Amazon and a select few others lead the way with entire product sets driven by feedback, other retailers will follow or fold.

Gene Detroyer

It would be great to know, when I am considering an item in a store, if it is any good.

Andrew Blatherwick

We have talked so much about the multi-channel experience for customers, but the bottom line is that they do not see physical and online as two separate identities and operations. Case in point is that customers are learning to use online media to consider their purchases whilst in-store and that includes user generated content. Retailers are going to get more switched on to this and develop their consumer contact strategies further. If they don’t, they will be left behind and consumers will see them as dinosaurs. However, customers also want clear signage when shopping, so let’s not go down the line of trying to include all sorts of comment on the shelf edge. That would be a real backwards step. Use technology to answer this demand, which is clearly there from the research.

Oliver Guy
Oliver Guy
Global Industry Architect, Microsoft Retail
8 months 8 days ago

One of the challenges with online reviews is knowing if they are genuine or not. People may also be more likely to take notice of a review from someone they know or one of their friends. This is an area that Facebook or other networks could play an interesting part — allowing shoppers to look at reviews based on their “Facebook network” up to a certain degree of separation — could be very powerful. Again, the assumption about these being genuine is based upon the level of confidence in the “policing” done by the social network.

In terms of making these available in store, a QR code taking you straight to the reviews — or rather the aggregate score — placed with the merchandise would be a rapid way to incorporate within the physical shopping journey.

Raj B. Shroff

If this is what shopper’s really want, great retailers will find a way to deliver it. Until now, they have been able to get by without providing easy access to user generated content. It’s unclear whether people just prefer their phones for this type of search or whether it’s by necessity because retailers haven’t done it effectively.

While user generated content is nice, I’d much rather know what my friends or people like me are doing. IMO, generic user generated doesn’t help much. I end up texting friends anyway, at least for larger purchases.

Future retail has much more room for creativity and human-centered design. I think for now, most retailers can get by being operationally centric. The next gen of retailers or leaders will use creativity, human-centered approaches and possibly deploy AR, VR and other more fluid ways to enhance the connection of physical-digital and bring that content into the physical.

Brian Kelly
8 months 8 days ago

When will we want to spend more time in a store? If we do, what will be sufficiently compelling to have us linger? With a screen in pocket, what isn’t redundant?

Kai Clarke

UGC for reviews and feedback should not only be encouraged, but also rewarded. To do this, the retailer only needs to establish a point reward for UGC from any user for any posting, so that purchasing feedback can be tracked, utilized and better managed.

8 months 8 days ago
For me, this works in a very contrarian manner. In that it makes the in-person store experience for the shopper about not needing to ever interact personally with staff. Other than, perhaps, to fetch, or to transact? (But how long before that last part becomes obsolete?) Meanwhile, I also believe this type of e-coding and warehousing of items is, really, all about making the merchandise and its purveyance all and only about commodity. Consequently, it’s like, and this is one of the few examples that jumps out to me, shopping at IKEA. There it was (and still is?) like browsing showroom-style, and really not needing to engage staff (if they could even be found) and discovering things about the product on your own. In that environment it would work wonders giving customers more to understand about certain things. Then upon entering (or walking through) the warehouse portion of the store, you essentially went and grabbed what you wanted, and exited by way of a surly cashier (who may have been impressed enough to give you… Read more »
Lucille DeHart

Retailers need to see more innovative methods to leverage what is proven to be an effective conversion tool. Reviews, ratings, influencers and comments are key to driving online purchases–converting this consumer behavior to brick and mortar is inevitable. I can definitely see featuring influencer picks as a merchandising category–a curated assortment of seasonal best bets. I did this while at Bed Bath & Beyond using actual college students to make top recommendations and featuring their picks on in-store signage.

Anil Patel

Product reviews have always been critical to customers. Earlier, customers used to turn to the store staff for product recommendations. Today, this need is being fulfilled by review websites and social media shopping communities.

But unfortunately, most retailers are still offering a mere modular version of traditional physical stores and lack the ability to make customer reviews widely available. Retailers should consider making this product content and reviews digitally accessible to the customers. They can allow their customers to scan the product’s QR code and get redirected to the eCommerce site where they can discover everything about the product.

Nike’s House of Innovation is one of the best examples of how retailers can offer personalized and responsive physical retail experiences through physical stores.

"I believe putting screens into a retail environment when people carry their own screens does not really move the needle."

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