From Black Friday to going green: E-commerce v. traditional retail

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With Black Friday, Cyber Monday and a weekend of gift-buying, deal-grabbing, elbow-shopping chaos over, we started to think about think about how the environment bears in all this (it is one of our sectors, after all). The battle between traditional retail and online shopping in driving sales is ongoing but we wanted to know which is greener, and how can a consumer, who wants to shop in the most environmentally-friendly way, tell?

Online heavy weights like Amazon are quick to boast about the environmental benefits of e-commerce, stating on their website ‘Online shopping is inherently more environmentally-friendly than traditional retailing.’ But can the reality be quite this black-and-white? This might be a great strapline that hooks in ‘green’ shoppers, but as quite research-based PRs, we want to know if this can be backed up!

Retail v e-commerce processes

Retail carbon footprints are generated from a range of processes, from IT infrastructure to vehicle emissions and packaging. It’s difficult then, to measure the eco-impact of each scenario for every consumer purchase, as the factors can vary so much from product to product, even in a single retailer.

Overall though, purchasing online should bypass travel to and from physical brick-and-mortar shops, and thus reduce greenhouse gas emissions and yield a lower carbon footprint, unless this journey was taken entirely on foot or by bicycle. This, I suppose, is the black-and-white answer Amazon would give.E-commerce

Consumer habit

Consumer habit, however, can also impact on the eco-friendliness of the purchase, and the route to this purchase in today’s world is rarely direct due to the multitude of options. For example, if you drive to a shop, buy something, change your mind and return it, carbon emissions will be higher you making a double trip to that shop. Modern delivery methods, like Amazon Prime, which offer next day delivery, and more recently just one or two-hour delivery options, also pose a significant toll on the environment. These quick options make it more difficult for delivery companies to combine shipments to the same area, so the distance driven per item increases, as does the carbon footprint.

Similarly, if you see something in-store, then choose to buy it online, this can offset any deductions related to the final e-commerce purchase. Failed delivery or click-and-collect have the same effect.

A green outcome?

So we haven’t really got an answer for which option is greener for the environmentally concerned shopper. Thinking about buying from companies you know to be environmentally-friendly and responsible, opting for eco-friendly packaging (or as little as possible) and if you’re buying online, buying in advance and not choosing short delivery times, all add up to a greener way of shopping.

For anyone in the retail sector, including Amazon, it’s vital to specify to consumers what steps you’re taking to be a green option. Communicating this clearly is key: Consumers know what’s important to them when they purchase but they need the full facts from you. If you’re looking to do this, to communicate and show your environmental merit and what it means as a retailer and for the planet, we know just the team for the job…!

Thanks JCrew, but I’d happily pay not to use your bags

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First and foremost packaging should be fit for purpose 

Like most formerly metrosexual, formerly in London, and formerly young PR-men, I now source my wardrobe online – well pretty much anyway.

Except, that is, when I find myself in the West End with an unexpected couple of hours to kill, as happened last week. So brace yourselves Covent Garden, Regent Street and Oxford Street, here I come.

First stop Nigel Hall in Floral Street and a cheeky scarf. Ready-wrapped in clear plastic, it goes straight in to the rucksack, no messing. Yes, you did read that correctly, that’s a rucksack. I commute.

Next stop Regent Street, to JCrew, and a nifty pair of jeans. I like JCrew and this made a welcome change from its online service which inexplicably ships UK deliveries from a depot somewhere in the deepest US – no next day delivery here – and don’t get me going on the company’s absurdly overly complicated online returns process either.

Still, back to the jeans which, as my mother always reminded me, were the original workers’ clothing and never worth the vastly inflated prices she paid to keep her chippy middle child happy. Now, at £125 a pair, I accept she had a point, and perhaps at that price even jeans have earned the right to be delicately wrapped in several layers of the finest tissue paper and placed gently, reverently even, in a carrier bag.

I say carrier bag, but this was not of the 5p from Sainsbury’s variety; more a thick, rigid, card version finished with contrasting black ‘tape’ handles. Smart, yes, but hideously awkward to carry, the shallow but wide design, gaping mouth and over-long handles had it twisting all over the show. And so a distress purchase in Gap, revered by most for its basic tee shirts, but by me for its totally practical carrier bags!

Gap carriers are a known quantity. Made of thin plastic, light and flexible, they have a draw string akin to the old fashioned, homemade plimsoll bags we had at school (only ours were made from old curtains or an ancient bedspread.) But fit for purpose they undoubtedly were, nothing fell out, nothing could be taken from them, and they were easy to carry. So into Gap version went the T shirt – and sorry JCrew, the jeans too – and full marks to the sympathetic Gap assistant who disposed of the rejected JCrew bag behind the counter.

There is a tendency for shops to put purchases in a bag at least ten times bigger than the item bought. I had to buy an emergency bow tie in Paul Smith recently (that’s another story) but yes, you guessed it, into a full size carrier bag it went.

Clearly retailers like us to parade their branding like sandwich boards. Or maybe they think that we want to flaunt our brands associations to everyone else. On the other hand, it may be just a cost thing. Is it cheaper to produce a one-size-fits-all carrier bag than it is to manufacture a range of sizes which can be selected according to the purchase?

Whatever the reason, for me an inconvenient bag is a packaging faux pas. I’m a fairly low key kind of guy and I hate walking down the street laden, Ab Fab-like, with out-sized carrier bags. Packaging first and foremost should be ‘fit for purpose’.

So what’s the answer? Well from here on I’m rejecting all extreme carrier bags and excessive packaging. And if my rucksack can’t cope, I’ll have a handy rolled-up 5p supermarket option in my coat pocket.

The supermarkets have got it right – fit for purpose bags that customers will pay for – and keep. Sorry Paul and JCrew, but I’d happily pay not to use your bags!

Are you asking the wrong questions?

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It was “Brexit plus plus” wasn’t it?  Trump was right. He confounded the media and the pollsters, just as the Brexit vote did.  So why did the pollsters get it wrong?

There are two different factors at play here:

  • Honestly answering the wrong question
  • Dishonestly answering the right question

The survey below which asks ‘What won the election for Donald Trump’ illustrates how this can happen.

Survey from CIPR asking people how come Trump won the election and we didnt predict it













Look at Q2.  Like most people I ticked  ‘because Trumps message resounded with people who weren’t accurately polled’. I don’t actually believe that, it was just the closest option to my views.

Yes his message must have resounded with people – they voted, he won.

But is it because people weren’t accurately polled?  No, I don’t think so.

Accurate polling means sampling a representative cross section of the population and asking them which way they are going to vote.

What can you do if people lie? It wasn’t politically correct to say you’d vote for Trump. As Paul McNamee wrote in the Big Issue: ‘his distasteful dog-whistle remarks rose like warts during the campaign’.

Not telling the truth and answering the wrong question honestly can happen all the time in market research if you’re not careful.

Here’s an example of how to overcome this problem.

I once ran a series of focus groups for an education client where, after the ‘official’ focus group was over, we stood around outside and chatted informally about the topics we’d discussed.   In these informal discussions, we gathered a completely different set of answers – which were the answers we used to correctly develop the product.

Lessons learned?  It was silly to ask the question “Will you vote for Trump?’ given how un PC he was, so the pollsters got a silly answer.

You have to ask different questions in different ways to get the right answer.

Don’t let your brand decisions be based on the wrong questions or approach.