This week’s musings, reflections and observations about travel affiliate marketing…

1. I think IMShopping’s major conclusion from their recent survey on online consumer buying sentiments that almost 80% of all U.S. adult online shoppers who have purchase items on line in the last 6 months miss the personalized service they receive from bricks & mortar stores is frankly unsurprising.

Neither are some of the other survey findings, such as that 52% of those who have not always been able to get the help they needed from a real person say it’s affected their decision to not purchase the product at least sometimes, while another 16% of all survey respondents note it’s affected their decision not to purchase the product almost always or often.

The survey of 2,274 adults, ages 18 and older, was conducted on IMShopping’s behalf by Harris Interactive, one of the world’s leading market research firms.  Among these adult shoppers, the most commonly purchased items were: clothing (44%), books (38%), music (28%), health and beauty products (28%) and travel related items (28%).

While the study focuses on explaining the root causes of the disaffection and frustration many consumers feel with online retailers, neither IMShopping nor Harris Interactive offer any advice as how to online retailers can redress this problem.

I think one answer is rather obvious – and that is, merchants need to invest in their customer care programs, and that investment includes hiring customer service representatives.  Believing that you can lessen, let alone overcome, consumers’ concerns by simply augmenting your product description, automated fulfillment and delivery capabilities or payment processes is in TravelDividends’ opinion, faulty and dangerous logic.

Your customers are your lifeblood, and if you can’t provide them with the level of service they require – and that includes ‘personal-’ if not ‘high-touch’ services, then somebody else will.

Likewise, if you are a travel affiliate, to retain the trust of your hard-earned customers, you need assure that the travel suppliers you feed are not only focused on converting the sale, but also meet – if not exceed – your mutual customers’ service expectations.  TravelDividends suggest that travel affiliates perform a service capabilities review for each of your travel suppliers as part of your partner analysis when looking at prospective suppliers, as well as implementing a similar step in your annual planning process.

As a travel supplier or travel affiliate, what are your thoughts on IMShopping’s / Harris Interactive’s survey?  What have been your experiences with your customers when they’ve sough to buy travel services from you?  What steps have you taken to assure that they don’t leave your site as disappointed or disaffected as those shoppers detailed in the survey?  Drop us a line and let us know…

2. I’ve always admired ‘out of the box thinking’, even when some of the ideas conjured up by inventors, scientists or entrepreneurs seems fanciful, if not down-right ridiculous.

An example of the latter: IBM received Patent No. 6,329,919 on December 11, 2001 for its “System and Method for Providing Reservations for Restroom Use” on an airplane.  Essentially, this ‘system’ is a yield management system that would priority-rank passengers (and their access to the plane’s in-flight toilets) based on factors such as what class the passenger is flying, how much the passenger paid for their ticket, and whether or not they are a frequent flyer (and frequent flyer status) with that airline.

On a similarly novel (but far more practical) note, Zero Baggage, a Canadian start-up may have an answer to all of the lost or delayed baggage that haunts peripatetic travelers on a daily basis.  They have a pilot project under which travelers would rent their holiday wardrobes from clothing stores, freeing them from the need to pack.  Moreover, if Zero Baggage has got its market research correct, this new way of traveling would save airlines money and travelers time, help the tourism business be more sustainable and reduce long security lines at airports.

According to Zero Baggage chief executive Catharine MacIntosh, who spoke at the Tourism Futures Conference on Australia’s Gold Coast earlier this month, “Instead of fighting with overstuffed bags, travelers would log onto the Zero Baggage website and pack online, dragging and dropping new or pre-loved clothes into a virtual suitcase,” adding that “When they arrived at their hotel, their selection would be waiting for them, with rental prices at just a fraction of what the clothes cost new.  And when the holiday was over, the clothes would be cleaned and used again.”

The Canadian entrepreneur, always a light packer, said her ‘Aha!’ moment came two years ago when she was singled out in an airport by a Customs officer who was suspicious of her lack of proper luggage as she was embarking on a 10 day trip.  MacIntosh told the audience that the Customs officer exclaimed how he couldn’t imagine how she could travel for so many days and have only small bag carrying her belongings.

While I’m not sure that this business model is a sure-fire hit, I do like the clever idea, and applaud Ms. McIntosh and her team.  I would also suggest that to help get her accelerate her company’s growth potential, she should consider selling Zero Baggage’s service through travel affiliates.  The Company expects to begin offering a range of services by the spring of 2010…if you are a travel affiliate, you may want to contact Zero Baggage and see if they are interested in working with you.

Who knows, this might be the next ‘big thing’ in the travel industry; we’ll just have to wait and see.

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