Retailers are realizing - hey, guess what, people are going to talk. On blogs, on forums, on social networking sites, via text messages. And if they don't like that digital camera or power saw or pair of jeans, better for us to hear it directly, and keep all that traffic on our own site. As reported in today's Wall Street Journal (sub. required), even large retailers like Macy's and JC Penny, have implemented a customer review section to their sites and are reaping the benefits both as an informal focus group as well as a way to learn about (and pull) defective products. And let's not forget the benefits of a positive third-party review. While apparel is certainly more subjective than technology it is not that much more subjective than books, movies or music, which have effectively leveraged peer reviews and customer feedback to increase sales.
Most every industry is learning to navigate this new territory of customer as vocal vs. silent partner. And as we learned from the entertainment industry, trying to bully (or prosecute) your customers into doing it your way only makes the process longer and more painful. Bet Blockbuster wished they would have come out swinging at Netflix sooner and no doubt Tower Record's mass store closings and liquidations would be going faster if anyone in their target market actually wanted to buy CD's anymore.
In addition to actively soliciting reviews and feedback some companies are even making their customers partners in product creation. Chumby, a new clock radio/wireless device (available sometime in Spring 2007) that gives customers 24/7 access to email, music, news, etc., has actively solicited the input of "hackers" to help customize and find new uses for the product. The company's view is that it's going to happen anyway so why not embrace it, and use it to make the product even better?
Making your customers into partners does not mean giving the kids the run of the store or taking each and every opinion to heart (e.g, this necklace clasp is defective vs. I hate gold necklaces). What is does mean is a willingness to seek their input, show respect for their time and leverage meaningful trends to increase their business. Truth is they're going to share those viewpoints anyway. Wouldn't you prefer it was with you?