Monetizing requests for products you don’t carry

05Feb08

Virtually every time I go to Target, I end up looking for some simple household item they don’t carry. Usually these items fall into the category of “hardware,” and they have apparently deemed them too obscure to carry even in a megastore environment. When I ask an associate for help, they inevitably refer me to Home Depot or Lowes. But it strikes me as odd that they make no attempt to monetize this referral traffic, or use the customer inquiries to improve future product assortments.

On the web, retailers often handle these requests by joining an affiliate program for related stores. When a customer searches for something they don’t carry, the retailer shows results from the other stores. If the customer buys something as a result, the first retailer gets a commission on the sale. Of course, they also have a record of what the customer was looking for and whether they bought it or not, providing valuable data to help in future product line assortment decisions. In other words, if people are searching your site for Widget X, and 10% of them buy it via your link to another website, perhaps it makes sense to stock the product yourself.

But when you step into a brick-and-mortar store, this logic is nowhere to be found. At a minimum, retailers should be tracking requests for products they don’t carry in the store. Perhaps they already do this, but I’ve never seen a store associate write down what I asked for. A simple form for the shopper to fill out and give to customer service, or perhaps a website or kiosk to handle the request, would be a good way to collect the data.

Creating an offline affiliate program is a little trickier. Maybe it could be done with some branded coupons that the first store gives you along with the referral, which would help track purchases and award affiliate commissions when you buy something at the second store. But even without the affiliate component, finding out what your customers are looking for would be a step in the right direction, as the revenue associated with referral purchases at other stores is currently being squandered entirely.



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