Examples of Online Communities in the Retail Industry

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by: Matt Rhodes

For the second in our series of Online Community Examples, we move on to look at online communities in the retail industry.

Online communities in the retail industry

In an economic downturn, we’re seeing a real shift in retail shopping  patterns. Here in the UK there are reports of people switching from their usual supermarket brand for what they believe to be a cheaper alternative (as shown by the current price war between competitors Tesco and Aldi). People are shopping around more and price is of even greater importance than it might have ever been in decision making. In this climate customer engagement is more important than ever, as is extending the customer experience by offering other services and support in addition to your core product. You need to keep your brand front-of-mind, so that when the customer next goes shopping they think of you first. This is where online communities can come in handy.

Wal-Mart’s Elevenmoms

Wal-Mart have a chaquered history with social media (the infamous Wal-Marting Across America campaign, for example), but they are doing some great things at the moment. One good example of building a small but powerful online community is Elevenmoms. The original concept was simple – get eleven moms to blog about their lives and in particular about their  money-saving tips. These blogs would be collected together in one space where others could read and comment on what was being discussed. Those eleven moms has now grown to 21 and includes a green-mom, among others.

This is another simple online community concept that really works. Communities don’t always have to be about engaging all your customers or providing discussions that they all want to join, sometimes getting a small number of people to blog and start a conversation is all you need. Others will read and gain benefit form what is being written, and with  time the number of people adding comments and interacting with the content will increase. You also have the benefit of not all content being from the brand itself – rather you are sponsoring and promoting user-generated content. Allowing your customers to speak for you. A difficult decision to make, but one that can offer real benefits to your brand.

Sainsbury’s Online Community

This is a relatively new online community from one of the major players in the UK supermarket market. It is yet to grow and mature and it will be interesting to see how it is managed in the future, but the initial signs are positive. The Sainsbury’s Online Community is a simple concept – a set of forums where people can share ideas and tips. This is really a user-generated version of the recipe and ideas cards you can get in store or download online. Rather than Sainsbury’s providing you with recipes and ideas, they are providing a means for their customers to share these things with each other. This should increase both time spent on site and the range of things people do once they are on the site. Sainsbury’s are also providing a new service to their customers, they are supporting them to make the most of the groceries they buy between shopping trips, thus keeping the brand front-of-mind.

Currently the community sits separately from the e-commerce part of the site. I think that this is a sensible idea, at least for now. People who are shopping on a grocery e-commerce site are typically going their with a set of specific items in mind that they want to buy. We would like them to buy all of these and checkout their basket, without any distraction to put them off doing so. Mixing in community content in this environment can be difficult – we want to enrich and enhance the experience (and so make people buy more or buy more expensive products) but we do not want to distract people from their core task. This will only really be possible once there is considerable content on the community and we can use it to tie together ideas and recipes (for example “you’re buying this item, how about these other items to make this recipe as recommended by…”). At the moment the concept is simple and needs to grow and develop, once it has done the opportunities are great.


No overview of online communities in the retail industry would be complete without looking at MyStarbucksIdea. This site, launched in early 2008, has a simple community concept – you can submit an idea to Starbucks, comment on existing ideas or vote for them. As with many example of online communities, simple can be best. You need to establish how you want to engage your customers and, importantly, how they want to engage with you. Starbucks identified that they wanted to create a feeling that customers had input into and a say in the business; that anybody’s voice could be heard. This fits well with the open and friendly brand they have developed and so would reinforce their position in the market. It would also be a source of new ideas and innovation and allow them to co-create with their customers.

But what makes this community really work is also simple – Starbucks actually listen to and respond to the comments in the community. This closes the feedback loop, rewards those who take part in the community, encourages others to join, and reflects on them as a listening brand. It’s often easy to overlook the need to engage and respond to ideas in your online community. But taking part is the one thing you can do to maximise the benefits you will get from the community itself.

See all our Online Community Examples

Some more reading

Original Post: http://blog.freshnetworks.com/2009/02/examples-of-online-communities-in-the-retail-industry/