written by
Bret Williams

Even Big Brands F**k Up Online Selling

Insights 6 min read

As ecommerce demand escalates, I, like many shoppers, are buying more and more online. I have to say, however, that the SMB merchants seem to have it down much, much better than the big brands.

Kohls is a great case-in-point. Big brand. Lots of retail stores. We actually like shopping at Kohls. Their men’s suits selections are not all that great, but prices on casual wear are attractive.

One of the biggest coups Kohls landed was to take in Amazon returns. If we buy something on Amazon we don’t like, most of the time we can take it to our local Kohls — about 2 blocks away — and return it without having to package it up, add a label, or find the nearest UPS dropoff. It is so convenient. For Kohls, this service is a great source of walk-in traffic. The store gives these customers a 7-day coupon good for 25% off.

But, just try to order online and the whole Kohls mystique collapses.

The Kohls website is not pretty and not very user friendly. The menus are overstuffed, and when trying to find a particular size in stock or based on a level of availability (ship-to-store, ship direct, etc.), the filtering quickly fails. It takes a LOT of clicks to find the right size, availability, etc.

We tried to order a nice little swimsuit this month. We logged into Kohls, as we already had an account from a previous curbside pickup. You would think it would remember our local store address. We certainly did.

But, no. Somewhere along the way, the site switched our local store to one completely across Austin, at least 20 miles away. We didn’t notice this little switch, so we ordered the swimsuit (which took another “many clicks” to accomplish).

We got the notice in a few days that the item was ready for pickup, so we drove to the local Kohls, clicked on the link in the email, and entered our parking slot number and description of our vehicle, as we had done before.

After waiting for several minutes, we repeated the process. No one came out.

So, I donned a facemask and went inside the store. A nice, young man looked up our order on his smartphone and said the item was in fact ready for pickup at the other, faraway store!

Could you send it here?

What was fascinating to me was that given how poorly the Kohls.com website behaved, I’m sure this type of situation has occurred before: a customer orders for a curbside pickup, but the item is sent to another Kohls store. It could be said it was the fault of the customer (me) for not double-checking everything at checkout, but this customer (me) would contend that the reason for the mix-up was the auto-switching of the local store on the website (still no logic there) and the very overstuffed and confusing checkout process that actually discourages close examination of the order.

But, let’s say it is all my fault. I would have been happy to pay a nominal fee to have the item re-shipped to my local Kohls rather than spend the time ($) and gas ($) to go retrieve it.

That could not happen. The local clerk was powerless to help, he said. I could call the other store and see if they could process a return, and then I could have the glorious experience of re-ordering the item.

Yee-haw!

I called the other Kohls. Yes, the item was in fact there. Could you forward it to my local Kohls?

“No.”

Could you process a return and refund me the price?

“I don’t think so. Let me check.”

What?

“I think you’ll need to come here and then turn it in as a return.”

OMG.

But, to the clerk’s credit, he put me on hold for a long while and returned and said, “yes, they would process the return.” I should get a refund in a few days.

It’s a Few Days

After four days, I had not received an email or any other confirmation that the item had been actually returned.

I looked up the order in our Kohls account.

This is the actual order status as of the writing of this article. It indicates that it was picked up (by me) and does not show any return or refund. A full two weeks after the order was placed and one week after the item was available for pick-up.

Seeing this, I was convinced the item had not been returned. So, I decided to contact Kohls.

This is not an easy thing to do: contact Kohls customer support. Notice the wording on their Help page.

Nowhere in Kohls is there a page entitled “Frequently Asked Questions.” The phrase “Frequently Asked Questions” on this screen is NOT linked, either.

I cannot see any rhyme or reason the methods of contact are not on this page.

After clicking on one of the help topics above — I figured these were the so-called FAQs — I did manage to find a phone number to call.

Not another bot!

I tried twice on the phone to ascertain the status of my order, only to be told the same thing the site showed: the item had been picked up.

Fortunately, another choice available was live chat. So, I thought I’d give that a shot.

I entered my information (I was already logged into my account) and explained my question to the auto-bot responder.

Same results.

I then asked to speak with someone, and, lo and behold, someone did come online. An actual human person.

Then the questions started again. What is your name? What is your email? What is your concern? I had already answered those!

Now, based on this conversation, I should be a refund in 30 days! Who does 30 days anymore? I can refund someone on any of our stores, such as Love My ATX almost instantly!

Still, I have not received anything: no email, no confirmation, no chat transcript, and no refund. Fortunately, I took screenshots, but I’m very tempted to complain to my credit card provider to cancel the charge.

If I wait for 30 days, does that negate my ability to contest the charge? Probably, and that’s most likely the sneaky reason behind the 30 day refund period.

Why do Big Brand Suck Online?

Unfortunately, my Kohls experience is all too common. We’ve experienced critical customer experience issues with Costco and Macy’s, as well. Target does seem to have its act down pretty well. Our curbside experience with Target has gone quite well.

From working with large and small merchants, the large ones are often dominated in their thinking by the IT department. And, as much of a geek as I am and very supportive of people in tech, the IT folks should be the last ones designing and building ecommerce solutions.

Customers are not going to continue shopping with a brand that makes it so very difficult to have a pleasant online experience. You can shop at just about any Shopify-powered store and have a much better, much easier, and much more supportive experience.

And it’s more than just the platform considerations. If Kohls would simply hire or consult with the right people — and keep IT out of the room — I guarantee they could dramatically increase their online business.

It’s not hard. The first step for the Kohls folks to do is to shop their own site, then shop any SMB merchant out there. Shop any Shopify store. Buy at smaller merchants who put live chat right on the front page and stand by to truly help. Shop the millions of mom-and-pop online stores that focus on making online success their top priority.

When big brands build crap like they often do, it’s clear they’re still clinging to the idea that the physical stores will still be relevant ten years from now.

They will, but not as relevant. The selling process is already starting online due to the pandemic. The store is now later in the funnel.

It’s time to start focusing on the top of the funnel, Kohls (and Costco, Macy’s, et al).

ecommerce brands SMB