How to Achieve a Near-Zero Return Rate via Expert Guidance and Service
In an age of Amazon efficiency, consumers can lack access to thoughtful guidance and expertise. Curated is working to change that, connecting shoppers with sports and travel aficionados to guide them through their purchase—and achieving a lower-than-1% return rate
In the next decade, PSFK researchers have identified that hyper-personalized service and utility will come to dominate consumers' expectations for their retail experiences. Curated is an exemplary retailer leading this front, tapping an Amazon whitespace for expert guidance and education rather than just quick-ship efficiency: The online shop for winter sports, golf, cycling and yacht charters connects customers with a community of experts, providing them on-demand, personalized product and experience recommendations.
In this interview, PSFK speaks to Curated founder and former LinkedIn exec Eduardo Vivas to learn about creating an ecommerce network where product experts in the sports and travel gear categories can monetize their passion and enthusiasm while assisting shoppers in making the perfect purchase.
PSFK: What inspired you to launch Curated?
Eddie: I’d had the idea for about 10 years at a high level. Shopping for certain things online is tough. I decided to start the company based on an experience I had three years ago: I used to go on this ski trip with a bunch of friends. Candidly, I'm not the best skier. I was always really struggling to keep up.
I went every single year. I blamed it on my not being great. Finally, I went and hired an instructor. The instructor saw the gear I was using, the board I had, and was like, “What are you doing?”
Basically, we left the mountain, went to a shop, got me outfitted with all the right stuff, and I literally went from absolutely hating my life, doing it just to be able to hang out with my friends and keep up with them, to really enjoying it.
I had gone and read all the reviews online. I had done a bunch of research myself. I think of myself as a quite savvy shopper, but I had picked out all the wrong gear. It really dawned upon me that there are a lot of people out there that have the right knowledge, which would be really great to have access to when you're shopping for these kinds of items. That was the birth of Curated.
Tell us about how Curated provides this knowledge and guidance.
We're focused on humans, while most retailers are focused on automation. The retail industry is heavily focused on self-checkouts, AI and chat bots. They're focused on delivering more products more quickly.
We're taking the exact opposite approach. We believe that some purchases can and should take more time. It's okay to have conversations that take a couple of days or even a couple of weeks, and to go back and forth with somebody to make the right decision.
Let's say that you're looking to buy a set of skis. We'll ask you 10 to 15 questions. We'll get an understanding of your skill level, where you like to ride, what you're looking for in a new set of skis, and what you're struggling with the most, in addition to some general info like your height, weight, etc.
We use all that information to match you to the best possible expert. If you're a snowboarder who likes to ride in the park, the person I'm going to connect you with is very different than if you're a backcountry skier.
A large part of the magic of the platform comes from matching you with the right person. Then you will go back and forth with that expert for anywhere between a couple of days to a couple of weeks. It starts on our site, and then it transitions to SMS. It's very unlike most ecommerce retail experiences where everybody has a live chat. This isn't a question here and there. These are 150 messages back and forth.
Your expert will chat with you to better understand your needs. They'll make you a recommendation. Then you'll go back and forth with them to find out what's right for you.
When you actually then go to make a purchase, the consumer gets an option to tip his or her expert. Something that surprised us about how consumers engaged with the platform is that the majority of them are tipping their expert.
We didn't originally build it with tipping in mind. From our first couple of sales, we had people reaching out to us saying, “Hey, how do I take care of my expert? This person just saved me money, time, and really helped me get the right thing. I want to do right by them.”
That's how we realized we were on to something big. The fact that people were going above and beyond and tipping quite material amounts proved to us that we were creating a lot of value.
We've read that Curated has a very low return rate. How did you establish such high customer satisfaction—and what do you do in the rare case someone isn't satisfied?
Another thing that we didn't expect was to have such a low return rate. Turns out that, if somebody spends a lot of time making sure you get the right thing, there is no reason for you to return it. Our return rate is under one percent.
It's extra impressive because we actually have a 14-day playability guarantee, which means that if you go buy the product and use it, you're still able to return it for 14 days after you received it. For a lot of ecommerce companies, returns eat up their profits.
For us, it's another thing that helps us justify paying our experts a healthy amount—they increase our conversion rates. They decrease return rates. It makes sense.
The focus more than anything has been on making sure the consumers have a really good experience, and that experts enjoy working on the platform and can make a good living.
What's next for Curated? Would you ever consider some type of physical store?
We've thought about having concept stores where our experts can work from. Our expert communities have really grown based on referral and on that category, so we'd do that in those particular areas.
As an example, Bozeman, Montana is a huge hub spot for us. That's because our initial experts have referred other Bozeman people and also because there's the mountain town. In the future, we'll probably experiment with concept stores.
What advice would you give to someone looking to offer a differentiated and service-oriented ecommerce experience?
Giving people the opportunity to work on the things that they're passionate about is a recipe for success. It should've been more obvious to me. It's something that I'm very passionate about.
I worked in recruiting for seven years. I was at Lincoln for four years. Connecting people to opportunity has always been important to me. Our experts love what they do, and so consumers enjoy chatting with those people. A lot of retail has lost sight of that. 15, 20 years ago, retail stores were filled with people who were very passionate. Increasingly, fewer and fewer retailers have that.
Further, when people they love what they do, they also give us feedback to help us improve the platform. It creates this really positive virtuous circle.
Lead image: Courtesy Curated