Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Best Ergonomic Online Stores: a Review

Best Ergonomic Online Stores Part 1

Where should you buy an ergonomic chair, keyboard or keyboard tray? What are the best online stores for purchasing ergonomic products in general? This is a tricky question to answer, because, unlike many other products, ergonomic product selection is an extremely personal choice, which must be very carefully fitted to one's own physiology and needs. In this series, we look at what makes a good ergonomic online store, research and compare online ergonomic stores, and select the best stores as a result.

Ergonomics apply to many, if not all, fields and disciplines. In this review, we focus on products for general office ergonomics, for office workers working at a desk.

What you need to know about ergonomic online stores and ergonomic products shopping
  • The most important products: chair and keyboard tray. Posture is the critical issue that drives ergonomic woes at the office. Experts consider that the most important items (although not the only ones) that drive good (or bad)  posture are the chair and the keyboard tray. When evaluating stores, we will particularly at these two items, but we will also consider other available accessories in the store inventory.
  • Furniture and accessory stores. It is not often the case that a store can carry a deep inventory both in ergonomic chairs, desks, or workstations on the one hand, and in desk or computer accessories such as keyboards and keyboard trays, mice, or other tracking devices, on the other hand. It is more common to have a store specialize in one or the other. This series will look at both categories, and evaluate stores in each.
  • A uniquely personal shopping process. Shopping for ergonomic products is an unusual process, because, by definition, the fit must be intensely personal. The best way to shop for an ergonomic product would be to go to a brick and mortar store - if it was possible, so that you could try all the possible tools or configurations for fit. Even then, you would need a ergonomic specialist to help you select the right products. The closest comparison is someone with slightly unusual feet shopping for shoes. For most people, of course, there is no good ergonomic brick-and-mortar store around, and the web is the only possible venue.

What makes for a good ergonomic online store
  • Focus on Ergonomics. Because the personal fit is so important, because the customer cannot see or try the product, and because most customers don't really know what is critical to know and look for about ergonomic products, it is important that the store specialize in ergonomics and be highly competent in it. A general purpose store with a small ergonomics department does not cut it - would you like an average Walmart salesman with a high-school degree and two months on the job to advise you about critical health matters?
  • Online ergonomics information. The right store needs to educate its customers, in general, about the ergonomic issues they face, and, in particular, about the ergonomic issues in the specific products they are shopping for. This translates into general ergonomic information sections on the site, and very specific ergonomic information linked into the product pages as needed for given product types and specific products.
  • Ergonomic consultants as part of the sales process. Most people need a well trained ergonomic consultant to be able to advise them on the products they need to buy. This is practically a medical product purchase. Only stores with sales personnel that is highly trained in ergonomics and available to the online shopper, either on chat on by phone, should be considered as best-in-kind stores. This availability is more critical than low prices - in fact, it compels higher prices.
  • A clean, well-built web site. Shopping for ergonomic products is a complex process. The right type of a web site is one that will help guide the customer through a simple but clear process of choice,  rather than overwhelm her with choices or attempt to sell her with promises of big discounts and prices in red ending in $.99.
  • Product information. we would really like to touch, feel, and try the product. However, the only thing we have is the product description and pictures given by the site. So, we would like the product information to be very extensive: detailed description, exact dimensions, all options, description of adjustments and adjustment process, texture, feel, diagrams, multiple pictures from different angles user's manual, installation manual, everything. There is never too much. There can only be too little...
  • Good chat and/or phone access. A consequence of the previous point is that the store needs to provide good chat and/or phone access to its well trained sales people - and that they actually be available to talk to or chat with you.
  • Inventory of known brands.  In order to purchase ergonomic products with confidence, we need to have access to fit and quality feedback from other users. This is only possible if the store carries known brands with enough notoriety to have accumulated enough user reviews across the net.
  • Large inventory across multiple categories. Beyond distributing well known brands, the best online stores need to cover many categories of  ergonomic products, and carry a broad set of products in each category. Why? Because it is not enough to carry the "best product", it needs to carry the best product for YOU specifically.
  • Store reviews. Because the quality of the store itself, both before and after the sale, is so critical to the buyer, having good store reviews is important., already reviewed here, is an excellent way to evaluate the customer experience when such reviews are available for the store in question. Testimonials by named customers in named organizations are also a positive aspect. Testimonials by anonymous customers, or by named customers where the corporate organization they belong to is not named, are useless as they can be totally made it (and often are).
  • Product reviews. Being able to access direct user reviews for the products you are purchasing is particularly important for ergonomic products, where fit is so critical. It is all the more important when the store uses little known brands or proprietary products. 
  • Product-specific ordering options. Buying ergonomic products such as keyboard trays or chairs is a complex process, because the products themselves have so many options - all of which may be important. A normal shopping cart cannot capture that complexity. In many cases, a custom-programmed product "builder" must be offered in order for the customer to be able to pick and choose all of the options required for these complex products.
  • Self-directed diagnostic and shopping guides. Few people know enough about ergonomics to be able to diagnose themselves exactly what it is that they need, down the the very product that will take care of their issues. For the most complex products in particular, chairs and keyboard trays, the best stores often step-by-step selection guides, sometimes combined with ergonomic consultant advice, to allow the buyer to make the right choices. 
    • Pricing. In the case of ergonomic products shopping, unless you already know exactly what you are going to buy, pricing, while not totally negligible is not a significant component when compared to expert advice and after sales support. It should a secondary factor compared to other, more critical criteria. We have found, in general, little price differences  in retail pricing for high end ergonomic chairs and keyboard tray systems (typically less than 10% or chairs, 15% for keyboard trays).
    • Blog. A nice to have: how much of an ergonomic store is it? Does it regularly post on ergonomic issues. Does it have passion? Does it discuss customer support with fervor? We would like to know what drives the store - a blog is a great way to find out.
    Next week, we research ergonomic accessories online stores and compare them... So come back soon!

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