Try before you buy is a sales model that lets customers try on or test products in the convenience of their home before completing payment. It can also take place in-store in the form of appointment shopping or showrooming, and online via virtual shopping or augmented reality (AR) apps. Depending on the structure of your try-before-you-buy program, customers can send back the items they don’t want for free or for a small fee.
Try-before-you-buy services are taking the online retail industry by storm, catering to everyone from busy moms to professionals to children and tweens.
Stitch Fix, a San Francisco–based clothing retailer, provides shoppers with the assistance of a stylist, who uses a set of unique algorithms to help select items that are shipped to the customer along with a pre-addressed return bag.
Accessories brands like Warby Parker give buyers the chance to order five pairs of glasses to try on at home before committing to a set of frames. Cosmetics brands have also adapted the try-before-you-buy model. Birchbox, for example, allows subscribers to try out a box of five pre-selected beauty samples at home before deciding whether to order more online at a discount.
While more brands are experimenting with try-before-you-buy programs, there are a few frontrunners in this space. In this article, we’ll take a look at what you can learn from them, the benefits of try before you buy, and popular trends to consider for your brand.
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What is try before you buy?
Try before you buy lets customers see and try products before making a purchase. Similar to how shoppers try on or test merchandise in-store, this order fulfillment option usually involves delivering products to the customer so they can try before buying, or scheduling an in-store appointment to do the same. The main objective is to give shoppers the option to touch, feel, and see what a product looks like in person before they actually pay.
And while this way to shop provides excitement and convenience for customers, the trend can be a mixed bag for retailers—you can attract new customers, boost customer satisfaction and loyalty, and lead happy customers to refer their friends and family to your business. But managing inventory as it’s coming in and out for try-before-you-buy orders creates its own set of challenges.
Benefits of try before you buy
Differentiate your brand and products
While it involves some risk, offering try before you buy can give you a competitive advantage over retailers that don’t. Being one of the first to test new sales strategies will help differentiate your brand and products from other retailers. This could encourage consumers to shop from your business instead of the ones that offer similar products without the option to try before you buy.
For fine jewelry brand Gemist, try before you buy helped differentiate its brand by letting consumers try on fashion replicas of their ring designs, resulting in a fine jewelry purchase (often an engagement purchase) of that design.
We always learn and listen to our consumers, and when we launched this experience many of them were interested in also purchasing the try-on replica—what we call a ‘stand-in ring’—for things like travel, the beach, and working out. Now we have an additional revenue stream from this feature that we didn’t originally anticipate. That’s the beauty of trying something new, you never know what other benefits will come from it.
Reach and attract new markets
Letting customers try products before they buy can help alleviate any second thoughts they’re having about purchasing from a new business or ordering products they’re not familiar with. And try before you buy is a great way to attract consumers who are generally apprehensive about online shopping. The fact that they don’t need to pay unless they’re satisfied with their order can make people feel more comfortable and confident about buying your products online.
Build trust, customer satisfaction, and loyalty
Not only does try before you buy help attract new customers, it gives your existing customer base more flexibility and convenience to try new products, something 57% of consumers say influences their decision to buy online, according a commissioned Forrester Consulting study conducted on behalf of Shopify. The same study shows that 45% of brands say they’re investing in improving the flexibility of their shipping and return policies. Doing this can boost trust in your business, encourage customers to continue buying from you, and have those customers likely tell their friends and family about the benefits of your try-before-you-buy policy.
Reward loyalty everywhere customers shop
Only Shopify’s integrated loyalty apps let customers collect and redeem loyalty rewards when shopping with you both online and in store–no complicated workarounds or required.
Boost brand awareness
According to a commissioned Forrester Consulting study conducted on behalf of Shopify, 60% of consumers said an excellent past customer service experience influenced their decision to purchase from a specific brand. Try before you buy is a great way to offer a smooth and convenient shopping experience that encourages customers to return as well as spread the word about your business. It’s also a great way to get more products into the hands of customers. Whether they buy immediately or not, offering an easy way to try products without commitment can help move first-time customers through the buying journey. And if they’re happy, you can expect free word-of-mouth marketing and an uptick in sales, since 93% of consumers say they trust product recommendations from friends and family the most.
Consumers today are inundated with choices, making online shopping more of a chore than retail therapy. But try before you buy makes it easier for customers to compare options in person, attracting an audience of people who prefer to touch and try products before they pay—and they can do it from the convenience of their home.
According to a commissioned Forrester Consulting study conducted on behalf of Shopify, 65% of shoppers say the ability to compare similar products is very valuable to them when searching or buying products online. During the times of uncertainty that we’re living in today, meeting shoppers where they are is key to increasing sales.
“The best thing about Home Try-On, especially for a luxury product like fine jewelry, is that it takes the risk out of the purchase,” says Menaka Sampath, Marketing Director at Gemist.
“Our Try-On customer usually has an AOV 3x higher than customers who go directly to customizing and buying online without participating in our Try-On Experience. For us, it has been a fantastic way to innovate within the fine jewelry space and bring the romance of brick-and-mortar to the consumer. We have seen great growth across the board with this unique experience.”
Reduce return rates
It may sound counterintuitive, but letting shoppers try products before they buy can help reduce your order return rates. Why? If customers get to touch and try products before they actually pay, the likelihood of returns due to fit issues or the item being different than what they expected will decrease.
💡 PRO TIP: View the Product orders and returns report in Shopify admin to see the return rates of your top ordered products, top returned products, and products with the highest return rates, and your store’s overall return rates.
Drawbacks of try before you buy
Despite the benefits for your customers and your bottom line, there are a few disadvantages of the try before you buy model that are important to consider before integrating it into your retail business.
Increased complexity with inventory
Without the right system to unify your online and in-store data and product inventory, it will be difficult to get a quick view of what’s currently out for try-on or stocked in-store to fulfill orders. This can lead to a poor customer experience and potentially lost sales. That’s why it’s important to use tools to connect all your sales channels and give shoppers a frictionless buying journey.
Diminished customer loyalty
As competition continues to heat up in this space, it’s more likely customers will try several different services rather than staying loyal to one. Approximately 70% of subscribers cancel within the first six months, and the average churn rate is 7.02% across industries. But if you make it past the six-month mark, you’ve likely got a long-term customer on your hands.
Most retailers that offer try-before-you-buy order fulfillment operate on a subscription basis, and high churn rates have proven to be a huge challenge for any type of subscription service. Furthermore, consumers are quick to cancel services if they fail to deliver a superior experience. This could be due to poor product quality, a lack of assortment of options, or a lack of perceived value. Only about 45% of replenishment subscribers stay for at least a year.
We’ve had to double down on our retention model to make sure consumers are engaged every step of the way during the shopping experience. Each consumer is slightly different, so it was important for us to spend time learning from many of them to perfect the flow of what worked best with the Try-On model. It’s been a series of testing and iterating to find what works best. It’s important to not only learn and listen to your consumers but to also make sure you’re constantly testing and trying new creative ways to engage them and keep them interested in what your brand offers.
Try before you buy trends
Let’s look at some of the ways retailers are helping shoppers make buying decisions with try before you buy options.
Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR)
Nowadays, AR and VR shopping is possible thanks to smartphone cameras and webcams. They can be used to overlay virtual images over actual images so customers can virtually see how products like eyeglasses, clothing, makeup, jewelry, and shoes might look on them in various colors and styles before making a purchase. This technology also makes it possible for consumers to preview home decor in a virtual environment, something 49% of consumers say is valuable to them when searching for and buying products online (according to a commissioned Forrester Consulting study conducted on behalf of Shopify).
For example, interior design app Houzz uses AR to let its users view various retailers’ products in a more realistic way. All you have to do is select the item you’re interested in and click the View in My Room button. Then you can see the sofa, table, or other piece of furniture in the actual place you’re thinking about purchasing it for. You can save pictures of the different arrangements and then compare them to make your final choice or go back to them later when you’re ready to make a purchase.
Virtual shopping and clienteling
With virtual shopping and clienteling, you or your store staff can connect virtually with shoppers via chat, text, or video. This way customers can ask questions, try on products virtually before buying, and get personalized product recommendations (according to a commissioned Forrester Consulting study conducted on behalf of Shopify, 42% of consumers find this valuable while shopping online) while also browsing all your products online.
Not only is this a way for consumers to try before they buy, it also helps blur the line between in-store and online shopping, while adding a personal touch to ecommerce and creating a truly omnichannel shopping experience.
Ship and return
AR, VR, and virtual shopping let shoppers try products digitally, but there are also try-before-you-buy tactics that give customers the chance to physically touch and try merchandise in the comfort of their home.
To make this ship-and-return strategy more appealing, these businesses also send prepaid shipping labels so the return process is easy and free for customers—according to a commissioned Forrester Consulting study conducted on behalf of Shopify, 70% of consumers say free returns have a significant influence on their decision to order a product online. But before you offer free shipping and returns, it’s important to carefully consider the costs you may incur with this try-before-you-buy model, and how they will affect your margins. Furthermore, it’s crucial to make sure your return policies are clearly stated on your website.
Showrooming and appointment shopping
According to a commissioned Forrester Consulting study conducted on behalf of Shopify, 46% of brands are investing in showrooming or appointment shopping to improve the in-store experience, and 38% of consumers say they’re likely to engage with these features.
With this omnichannel retail strategy, you can stock less inventory on your sales floor and use the space to schedule individual or group shopping appointments. This way, you can provide a more personalized in-store experience and let customers try products before they purchase.
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Examples of try-before-you-buy programs
Home improvement retailer Wayfair has a 3D room planner feature that lets shoppers use AR to visualize a range of decorations, furniture, and other products in their home.
You can start by creating a floor plan that matches the dimensions of the room you’re decorating, including windows, doors, radiators, and more. While it’s still important to compare the dimensions of virtual products against a real room, this try-before-you-buy option lets customers see how Wayfair’s furniture and decorative accessories fit into their space in real time, before completing their purchase.
Popular DTC eyewear brand Warby Parker offers a Home Try-On program to let customers try five different frames—either regular or sunglasses—for free, over a period of five business days.
Once the try-before-you-buy period is over, customers must return the items they don’t want (using a prepaid return shipping label), and can purchase the item(s) they like.
Gemist, a jewelry brand that sells customizable, made-to-order rings and earrings, offers a Try-On experience to let customers choose three ring styles to try for up to 14 days before buying.
When the customer orders its curated box of try-on rings, they’re charged a $45 deposit that gets refunded in full once the Try-On box has been returned. If the customer chooses to keep some or all of the rings, they’re charged the full retail price for each.
Stitch Fix offers customers a personalized shopping experience using a combination of data science and curated collections picked out by human stylists.
For a $20 styling fee, customers receive five items and can decide whether to keep or return them. If a customer keeps all the items in a shipment, they receive a 25% discount. Customers can subscribe to receive shipments monthly, quarterly, or at a frequency of their choosing.
Stitch Fix uses a unique algorithm, along with hand-picked recommendations from a real stylist, to predict a customer’s style preferences. The more feedback a customer offers on which types of clothing items they prefer, based on online images where they can select a thumbs up or a thumbs down, the more artificial intelligence learns about their style. Customers can also select a price range for how much they are willing to spend on each item.
This highly customized try-before-you-buy model is what has helped Stitch Fix become so successful. The hand-picked offerings are resonating with an increasing number of customers. The company earned net revenues of $1.2 billion in 2018—a 26% increase year-over-year.
Third Love is a DTC lingerie brand that lets women try bras for 30 days before making the decision to buy them. It also helps its customers determine the right bra size with its fitting room feature.
After shoppers complete a fit quiz, Third Love curates a handful of bra styles to try at home. Then the customer can select the bras they want to try and check out to complete their order. Upon receiving their purchase, customers can try them on and decide which bras they want to keep. The products that don’t fit well can then be returned for a full refund.
Nordstrom Trunk Club
Trunk Club customers can choose how often they’d like a trunk—monthly, bi-monthly, seasonally, or on a specific date.
Customers communicate with a stylist online to share style preferences, a stylist chooses a variety of items, and the customer then decides whether to approve or replace each item before it’s shipped for them to try on.
Trunk Club says its focus is on human relationships.
“When someone signs up for Trunk Club, they share their size, style, fit, and budget preferences, and are then connected directly to a personal stylist,” a Trunk Club spokesperson says. “They can then discuss style specifics and any clothes needed for upcoming events.”
There’s a $25 styling fee, which includes scheduled pickup of any items the customer wants to return. If the items are purchased, the $25 fee is deducted from the bill.
Trunk Club was founded in 2009 and was acquired by Nordstrom in 2014. A Trunk Club spokesperson credits the company’s success to the fact that it is now backed by a major retailer with high-quality merchandise.
With a $15-per-month subscription, Birchbox customers receive beauty product samples chosen specifically to match their profile, including skin or hair type.
They can try the products and purchase the full-size version on the Birchbox shop, which offers 500 brands, from MAC and Kiehl’s to up-and-comers like Sunday Riley and OUAI.
Founded in 2010, the company has more than one million subscribers and 2.5 million active customers. Some 35% of revenue comes from sales of full-size samples online, and about 50% of subscription customers shop for full-size products on Birchbox.com, according to the company's fact sheet. The company also has retail stores in NYC and Paris.
Digitally native mattress brand Casper lets customers try mattresses for 100 nights before deciding to buy.
There’s also a minimum 30-night trial period to give your body time to adjust to a new mattress. If customers decide after 30 days that the mattress is not for them, Casper picks up the unwanted mattress and provides a full refund, as long as it’s not damaged.
The brand also offers a 30-night trial for other “snooze supplies.” This includes pillows, bedding, glow lights, dog beds, and furniture.
To survive in the age of Amazon, legacy electronics retailer Best Buy also tested out its own version of a try-before-you-buy program back in the summer of 2017.
Customers visited a dedicated try-before-you-buy section on Best Buy’s website and selected from a variety of cameras, wearables, drones, and other late-model gadgets. Essentially, buyers rent these items prior to purchasing. For example, renting the DJI Phantom 4 drone for about $50/day (worth around $999 MSRP), or testing out an Apple Watch for about $50/week. Once a customer decided to make a purchase, 20% of the rental price would be applied toward the final price.
This experiment not only allowed customers to test out pricey electronics before making a financial commitment, it also gave Best Buy a new way to use its “open box” items—items that customers had returned or exchanged. To make this project go, Best Buy partnered with San Francisco–based startup Lumoid, which offers its own in-platform try-before-you-buy program. Lumoid boasts a decent track record with converting “tryers” to buyers, with one out of three testers taking the leap to purchase an item through its platform.
Is a try-before-you-buy program right for your business?
In today’s retail landscape, offering try-before-you-buy options can help differentiate your brand from competitors’. It can also help you reach a growing audience of consumers looking for flexible and free shipping options. But before you decide if it’s right for your business, it’s important to make sure it’s logistically and financially possible.
This post was originally written by Renee Morad and has been updated by Alexis Damen.
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