The Mark Group-A 50-Year Legacy of Service (1,709 words)
Look inside the front cover of The Mark Group's original catalog, Mark, Fore & Strike, and you are very likely to see a 1950s photograph that represents the company's founding belief: The lifetime value of each customer is more important than a single sale. Behind that photo is a story, one that shows just how strongly the company believes in customer service.
The photo is of the late J. William Tiernan, president and owner of Mark, Fore & Strike until his death in 1973, and was taken by a store manager as Tiernan arrived at a Naples, FL, airfield with a dress for a customer. Earlier that day, the store manager called Tiernan regarding a customer who'd fallen in love with a dress for an occasion that evening—the perfect dress, just not in the right size. Tiernan located the dress at the Delray Beach store and flew to Naples to personally hand-deliver the garment.
Today, the company founded in 1951 as a single Mark, Fore & Strike retail store has grown to a $115-million company with a retail arm, three catalogs and a growing Web presence. The lion's share of its business still comes through its catalogs—Boston Proper, Charles Keath and Mark, Fore & Strike—representing more than 85 percent of current net sales. Accordingly, the company will mail more than 58 million catalogs by year's end. But the Internet is becoming an increasingly important component in the company's marketing and customer service approach as its largely female baby boomer audience becomes more Web savvy.
Regardless of the medium, "With every customer contact we have we try to drive home the fact that we have excellent service," says Seth Miller, executive vice president and chief operating officer. "It's ingrained in us, it goes back to the company's beginnings. It's in everything we do, through every aspect of the company," he asserts.
On the Front End: Making It Easy to Shop
All of The Mark Group brands target affluent baby boomers—primarily well-educated, high-income women with active lifestyles—who demand quality, convenience and service as part of their shopping experience. Utilizing the power of both the Internet and catalog channels, the company is able to offer the convenience and flexibility of shopping 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Charles Keath features hard goods such as furniture and home decorating accessories, as well as casual women's apparel. Boston Proper and Mark, Fore & Strike are apparel-based, with the former featuring contemporary fashions and the latter focusing on updated classics. In the print catalogs and on the Web, copy and design are used to provide shoppers with detailed information, as well as ideas on how to coordinate outfits to purchase. For several items in a catalog, fabric swatch closeups are shown to help buyers make educated decisions. On the Boston Proper Web site, every item featured has four views for shoppers to see merchandise from several angles, including a detailed fabric swatch.
Additionally, order forms not only provide easy-to-understand instructions, but spell out the company's liberal "Complete Satisfaction Guarantee" returns policy.
"On the telephone, customer service representatives (CSRs) are trained to provide information to better serve customers, and not merely take orders," says Miller. "They can answer questions regarding product styles, sizing, features and other details." Sometimes, CSRs do some cross-selling, for instance to recommend complementary items, but only on inbound calls; no outbound telesales are used. Miller explains, "We may have our reps suggest shoes to go with an outfit or offer specials of the week, and sometimes, we provide third-party specials as well, at the end of our sales calls."
A Great Back End Keeps 'Em Coming Back
The Mark Group knows that its time-starved, affluent consumers also tend to be impatient consumers. Therefore, the company takes great pride in its promise to deliver goods as quickly as possible—without charging an arm and a leg. "When we say same-day shipping, we mean it. If we get an order for in-stock merchandise by 3 p.m. (Eastern time), it goes out the same day," says Miller. The company's regular delivery method is Priority Mail from the Post Office for apparel items and Airborne@Home for small hard- goods packages. It also offers overnight delivery, via Federal Express, on any order received by 6:30 p.m. (Eastern time).
Of course, speed is nothing without accuracy, so The Mark Group has invested in the systems to provide both to its customers. "CommercialWare's AS400 system is at the heart of our order-processing system. It's integrated real time into the OneSoft Web software [which the company recently purchased for its Internet business], so regardless of whether an order comes in via phone, mail or Web, it goes into one system," says Scott Bryant, vice president of operations. "This makes order handling seamless and makes it easy to track order and delivery status."
While both speed and accuracy are absolutely important for any fulfillment operation, hassle-free returns are another major service priority. With every order from either the Internet or catalog channel, a postage-paid return label is enclosed, making it possible for the customer to simply seal up the package, attach the enclosed label and hand it back to his or her postal carrier in order to return any unwanted items. The Mark Group's return policy has always been unconditional. Customers have unlimited time to return the product for any reason. The company only deducts a return shipping charge from the shopper's refund if she or he is not exchanging the item for another.
Channel Shift Underway
Since 1998, The Mark Group has been migrating each of its brands to the Internet with the goal of offering the best this new shopping medium has to offer to its customers.
According to Miller, in discussing the move of some its business to the Web, "channel shift" is the term the company uses, preferring to eliminate the word "cannibalization" from any of its language regarding the interplay between Web and catalog sales. While the Web may lower the cost of acquiring new customers as more customers use the medium, Miller does not foresee the elimination of communication channels such as catalogs and 800 numbers.
First to make the jump online was Mark, Fore & Strike. Launched in December 1998, the site has been e-commerce-enabled since its inception. It has undergone two major rewrites of Internet functionality since its initial launch.
Charles Keath went online in February 1999, and has had three functional upgrades since its debut. The site also has been e-commerce-enabled from its inception. Boston Proper first went online in April 1999. To date, it has the fastest-growing Internet sales of the three Mark Group brands. As such, it became the first of the company's brands to use OneSoft's OneCommerce software, with the December 1999 launch of the second-generation Web site www.bostonproper.com. "We went ahead with this site's update first because we found these buyers to be the most responsive online," says Bryant. The company boasts that Boston Proper was among the earliest in the women's apparel industry to have a fully integrated Web site offering real-time, in-stock inventory levels, real-time credit card confirmation and direct order entry from the customer to the company's fulfillment operations.
Plans are to eventually migrate both the Mark, Fore & Strike and Charles Keath sites to the OneSoft software platform. Until that time, the sites will continue to operate integrated to the company's fulfillment software, and will have a more limited product selection and functionality.
As Miller explains, The Mark Group is aiming to "deliver a radically improved shopping experience to its target customers. The Web will allow us to provide the ultimate in service."
Adds Bryant, "Online, that's where we can customize the shopping experience. Our goal is to eventually create a custom catalog for each visitor to the site." Apparel and home decorating accessories are well suited for selling via the Internet channel due to the new techniques available for making the shopping experience more informative, efficient and enjoyable. For instance, Bryant says, "We can show more product and make it more visually active. An example is our Mouse-Over technology, which allow shoppers to see three or four views of a product."
Bryant notes that the Web can help provide better service and overcome traditional direct-to-consumer industry obstacles. He explains, "... Soon Boston Proper shoppers will be able to use the power of the computer to assure that their purchase will be the correct size. Work has begun so when customers enter their measurements and other fit preferences, the site will dynamically provide customers with garments specially selected for them ..."
A Service Revolution
The Mark Group believes the key to making the Internet channel of distribution successful for its target market segments is not merely to put up Web sites, but to revolutionize the customer's overall shopping experience and provide better service both on the front end as customers shop and on the back end after they've decided to purchase.
Among the ways the company is doing this: dynamic population of Web pages. "This means an item disappears automatically when it goes out of stock," says Bryant. "This is possible due to a real-time link to the fulfillment system."
Another feature the company has introduced is what it terms lifestyle navigation techniques. Says Bryant, "We have eight different shopping methods on the site for customers' convenience," among them: Shop by Designer, which allows shoppers to view pieces and outfits by their favorite makers; and Catalog Shortcut, for people who've already decided in the print catalog what they want to purchase.
Another direct impact of the Internet is the ability to use e-mail as a customer service tool. "Our CSRs also now respond to customer service questions via e-mail," Bryant adds. The company prides itself on the fact that it responds to any customer e-mail within one hour. Additionally, he says, "We give order confirmation, real-time notification of shipment and return-receipt acknowledgement to customers for whom we have e-mail addresses. With Boston Proper, we also send special offers via e-mail to bring people's attention to new products or events."
Off-line or online, the bottom line, says Miller, is this: "We will continue to serve our customers through whatever means they are comfortable with."