Three wishes for a greener shopping experience

IT equips retailers with tools to cut costs and carbon emissions while providing better service to customers

The holiday season has become far more enjoyable for me over the past few years as more retailers have transformed Web sites into viable shopping destinations. I far prefer cozying up to my computer with a cup of coffee in hand in search of deals on Cyber Monday than risking bodily and psychological harm challenging salivating, sleep-deprived bargain hunters at Wal-Mart at 5 a.m. on Black Friday.

Yes, the information technology has made the shopping experience -- both online and at the mall -- more convenient and all-around enjoyable. Technological innovations have also made the experience greener, saving retailers (and customers) on paper, ink, fuel, packing materials, and such.

[ In the near future, will retailers report the carbon footprint of each item they sell? | Ordering music this holiday season? Downloading tunes isn't always the greenest option. ]

There's still plenty of room for improvement, though. Thus, I'd like to share three of my holiday wishes with the retailers of the world to leverage IT to make the shopping experience greener. These types of changes should translate to cost savings, a reduced carbon footprint, and better customer service for companies. Green has a pleasant tendency to be the gift that keeps on giving.

Stop the flood of catalogs

A friend of mine (whom I'll call Rebecca because she's requested anonymity) lamented on Facebook the other day that she's repeatedly contacted department store chain Macy's over a year ago, via telephone and e-mail, with a simple request: Stop mailing her catalogs. Yet those glossy, full-color mailings keep coming. "I stopped trying about a year ago. I contacted them fourteen times. Literally, fourteen times. And I could never get them to stop. I hate them," Rebecca posted.

I thought to myself, Well, surely this company's Web site has an easy-to-find area where you can quickly opt out of receiving marketing materials. After all, what kind of company would want to waste money on printing and mailing out excess glossy, full-color materials that serve no purpose than to stoke flames of loathing in the hearts of would-be customers?

I did manage find a section of the Macy's Web site trumpeting the company's commitment to all things green (which includes "reducing the amount of paper we use by at least 20 percent by 2010"). However, insofar as finding guidance on how to coerce the company to cease and desist sending unwanted snail mail, I was only able to find a blurb buried deep in the customer service section of the site, hidden at the end of this path: Customer Service > Getting Started > Safe Shopping > Privacy Policy.

The blurb provides a mailing address for sending opt-out requests and asks that, when writing, you include your name, address, and (again, this is in the Privacy section of the Web site) your credit card account number. There's also a toll-free number to call for those customers who would prefer not wasting their own time and money on paper, printing, and postage in an effort, ultimately, to save the company from wasting its time and money on paper, printing, and postage. For whatever reason, opting out via e-mail or some other electronic means just wasn't an option.

The capper here: Rebecca called the number and was told by the customer service rep that she could only be removed if she had an account with Macy's. "He suggested that I call a local store directly to get removed from the list, even though we all know that the local stores are not the ones who send out the catalogs," Rebecca complained after her 15th failed effort. "I hate them!"

Thus, my first holiday wish from retailers is to please, please make it easier to opt out of receiving your printed marketing materials, ideally through your Web site or via e-mail. In the meantime, spruce up your online catalogs (and/or make your print catalog available as a PDF), promote them, and incentivize customers to use them, the way credit card companies push customers to receive statements via e-mail. Doing so will spare some trees and reduce your carbon footprint with fewer mailings, while saving you some cash and reducing the amount of publicly aired ill will from potentially former customers.

Spare me my receipt

Of the dozens of receipts I receive each week, I end up needing 5 percent in the long run -- and that might be a generous estimate. Yet I'm almost always given a receipt for anything I purchase, be it a television, a week's worth of groceries, or a strawberry scone and a small coffee.

There's been a gradual move away from mechanically providing customers with physically documented proof that they've engaged in a transaction. Some customer service reps will ask you whether you want a receipt, though if you say no, they just end up balling up the strip of paper their printer spews out and tossing it in the garbage for you. OK, that saves me about a calorie's worth of physical exertion, but it still represents wasted resources for the company, which can really add up over time.

Some businesses have taken it a step further, letting you opt out of having a receipt printed. My bank's ATMs, for example, ask me if I want a printed receipt after a transaction, which I generally don't since I can access that information online. My preferred gas station also asks if I need a receipt, which I don't, because (A) I've never had to return gas, and (B) the purchase will show up on my credit card statement, again which I can access online. Though environmentally friendlier (which translates to less expensive), it's not necessarily a perfect approach in cases you don't think you'll need a receipt but later discover you do (such as when getting a reimbursement from work).

The best approach I've seen, though, is what amounts to digital receipts. Apple Stores, for example, give you the option of having a receipt sent to your e-mail, rather than handing you one on ink-stained processed tree pulp. Thus, the customer has easy-to-find proof of purchase archived in his or her e-mail while -- yes, I'm beating the sustainability drum -- the company saves cash and resources.

A variant here -- another example of technology rendering printed receipts obsolete -- is how some retailers track gift purchases. My wife and I had to return some items we'd received for our recent wedding, but we didn't have receipts. Yet two of the retailers were able to confirm that our items had come from their respective stores (and that one item had not) by checking their digital records. No slips of paper were necessary, and all parties ended up satisfied.

Thus, my second holiday wish to retailers: Retire paper receipts wherever possible, replacing them with more convenient, eco-friendly, inexpensive digital receipts. Paper receipts shouldn't be retired entirely, but at least give us the choice as to whether we need to clutter our pockets, glove compartments, and recycling bins with reminders of last week's burrito or dry cleaning.

Offer greener shipping
My wife and I have a couple of cats, and for the sake of convenience, we order certain supplies in bulk online from Amazon. My thinking has been, "If I buy several cases of canned food at once, it will be more convenient, less expensive, and we'll save on shipping." I'd think the latter point would benefit the retailer as well.

After making my most recent order online, I was surprised to receive just half of the batch, with an invoice explaining that only a portion had been available, so it had been shipped early as a courtesy, at no charge. The rest came a day or two later.

I give Amazon props for its attempt at good customer service, for which one of the mantras is probably "Faster is always better," words you might find printed on a poster beneath an inspirational photograph of a lithe cheetah charging through the African plains after an adolescent antelope.

Thing is, I didn't ask for express delivery. I accepted the free, standard shipping with the understanding -- actually, the expectation -- that everything would ship at once, even if it meant waiting a little more time. Had there been an option on the Web site where I could insist that all the items ship at once -- so long as they'd arrive within, say, two weeks -- I'd have checked it. On the back end, Amazon's supply-chain and order processing systems could have taken that into account and handled my shipment accordingly. In turn, that would have saved Amazon on extra packaging and shipping, which translates to more money for the company, not to mention a smaller carbon footprint.

Thus, my third holiday wish for retailers: Give customers more eco-friendly shipping options, ideally based on real-time supply-chain data that indicates when an order will arrive in its entirety, and pass along the cost savings you enjoy from using one box instead of two or three or whatever. This service needn't come at the cost of shoddy customer service, of course. If an order ends up being delayed because one or more items aren't available, you can notify the customer via e-mail to see how to progress.

This story, "Three wishes for a greener shopping experience," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in green IT at InfoWorld.com.

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