By Neil McCarthy, Senior Director at Shopzilla Europe

The X factor, Dancing on Ice … we’re a nation obsessed with voting and interaction: we like to have a say in who stays and who goes, we know our opinions matter and we want others to know what we think. If you’re an online retailer then you can harness this continuing appetite for voting and interaction. 2011 is widely predicted to be the year of social commerce and you can use it to your advantage to boost sales.

So, where do you begin? If you don’t already have a two-way relationship with your customer then now is a good time to begin the conversation. Product reviews are at the practical end of social commerce: web 2.0 in action if you like. The idea is that you get to know what your customers are thinking and so you can anticipate which products to stock up on, what to feature prominently on your website and you may gain an insight into what the ‘next big thing’ is going to be.

Shopzilla provides the same technology that sits behind online stores such as Gap, Grattan and Staples and this can be harnessed by online retail businesses of any size.

The idea is to engage customers better through user-generated content. What are the benefits for you?

• Increase in conversion
• Decrease in product returns
• Increase in average order value

If you’re not technically minded it is natural to have some reservations about all this, but you’d be surprised at how speedily it can be set up. Implementing product reviews can take as little time as half an hour in fact. As for the cost, you will find that there will be product review options designed to suit your size in the market. Shopzilla is one example where point of sale reviews are free to our Express customers (our Express offering is designed with SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises) in mind and aimed at those retailers with less than 2.5m page view per month on their site.)

Our insights into customer behaviour tell us that shoppers are more likely to select a product that has a review than one that does not, with the conversion rates being generally 10% higher across our network for those products carrying reviews. The reviews also affect the tendency to return items to the seller, with one of our retailers telling us that they were 27% less likely to receive returns from products that had been reviewed online by customers.

Merchant reviews add additional insight to you as the retailer by exploring your customer service and delivery, continuing the feedback and allowing you to compare yourself against other merchants in your field.

So what should retailers think about when implementing reviews?

• What if people say your product is no good?

You will get bad reviews, this is okay. It shows that you are genuine and the responses can feed into improving your product and customer service, and communicate that back to your market. The average rating on Shopzilla is 4.3 stars (out of a possible rating of 5)

• What about moderation? Can anyone write anything they like about my product?

Ensure the supplier moderates the reviews for you. Shopzilla reviews are always read by real people and profanities or advertising of rival products won’t be published.

• Is the style of the review consistent with your visual identity?

Look for a flexible template so that you can make sure that the reviews work for you on your site. You should have the freedom to change the style and colour scheme to suit your site and even change the star rating icons, for example, to a different sort of shape or image.

• Tag-based reviews

The ‘first generation’ of review products offered free text and a star rating, you should now be looking for tag-based reviews where customer insights can start to create a narrative for you. This will help the customer with their searches and make analysing feedback a lot simpler for you as the retailer. Customers prefer tag-based reviews 2-to-1 over traditional free-form reviews (Keynote study).

The trend for proactive customer feedback gives retailers an opportunity to identify issues early, fix them and gain more prominence for the most popular products. Rather than being a luxury, this functionality is becoming as essential as your website itself.

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