Gift cards,, and Banana Republic – an online shopping review

This weekend, with coronavirus still keeping us away from crowds, I thought I’d take advantage of some free time to do a little shopping and use up some gift cards. In this post, I review my online shopping experience and compare three Canadian retail sites.

What is the ideal shopping experience?

Before I begin, I want to share words of advice from Jackie Cook, Chief Strategy Officer at Vendasta. I had the opportunity to hear Jackie speak on Understanding & shaping your customer journey at the WESK Experience Conference in May, 2019. I remember one key point. She said (and I’m paraphrasing from my notes here): Find your customer’s pain points, road blocks, sticky points – whatever keeps your customer from completing a sale with you – and do what you can to fix or minimize them.

The goal is to make the shopping experience as rewarding, fast, and painless as possible.

Now that we have our benchmark, let’s get to it!

Shopping for sandals at

Sail is an outdoor clothing and accessory chain like MEC or REI with stores in Ontario and Quebec only. Gift card at the ready, I headed over to to find something to buy. It didn’t take very long. I need some summer sandals to replace my beloved flip-flops, and the Sorel Out N About Plus Women’s Sandals caught my eye.

Call for advice

But before I feel confident I can buy them, I call my friend Elaine. Between the two of us, we have spent hundreds of dollars on sandals that try to hit midway between fashion & comfort: that nebulous area between Blahniks & Birkenstocks. Elaine surfs to to see the sandals I am considering. She comments that a tech guy probably designed this site, because the colour is described as brown, a bland description she says embraces everything from cream to walnut. Elaine advises me that sandals she’s owned in this style tend to stretch out, so I’m better off getting the 7.5 instead of 8.

Great! I’m ready to buy.

Problem #1 – I can’t sign into my account

I sign up for a new account at First problem – the site tells me an account already exists for my email address. I reset my password. I wait an hour and reset it again. I recheck my email again and again. The password never comes.

Problem #2 – I can’t use my gift card

I’m in the shopping cart area and I can’t find the place to enter my gift card numbers. Elaine googles the problem and sure enough, you can’t use gift cards for online shopping at Sail: [Gift cards] cannot be used to pay for online purchases. See below.

I’m so grateful for her help because it would never occur to me that a gift card could not be used online. I live in Saskatchewan and we are in a pandemic – visiting Ontario or Quebec is not an option.

Now I’m angry. I have wasted my time getting all the way to the Checkout and I can’t even do what I originally wanted to do, which is to use up the gift card. Note that buying sandals was secondary. I leave the site, annoyed and frustrated.

Problem #3 – The site reminds me of my terrible experience

The site proves it does have my email address – just that it doesn’t want to let me in to buy anything. In an ironic twist, I receive not one but two emails at 12:40 pm and 1:10 pm – to the same email account I can’t get a password reset for – reminding me of the purchase I can’t make because the store won’t take their own gift card.

Time & money: 1.5 hrs, $0 spent

Would I do it again?

You’re kidding, right? I can’t even get into my own account here.

Shopping for makeup at TheBay.ccom

I like The Bay. It’s a department store that tries hard to carry a wide range of products, and in my normal life when I’m allowed to shop in person, I like browsing through the departments. But now is not a normal time, and I decide to try to buy some mascara. I immediately run into a problem. The Bay doesn’t carry the mascara brands I know and want: Hourglass, Milk, or Stila.

Calling for advice

I call my sister, Selena. She is the guru of shopping online, and knowing her is like having my own personal makeup advisor.

Hey you. What are your favourite makeup brands? I need to burn an HBC card and I was thinking makeup but HBC doesn’t carry Milk, Hourglass, or Stila.

Text from me to my sis

OMG. Everyone who is into makeup needs a Selena in their lives. Within minutes she’s on it, sending me screen caps of the brands she recommends, that are well reviewed, and that have survived stringent YouTube beauty influencer reviews. Like this Chanel lipstick:

And I fall in love with Bobbi Brown’s advertising.

How two pages selling lipstick can be so very different

What’s the difference? Can you tell?

Chanel Rouge Allure Camélia limited edition rouge intense – CAD$50: Chanel’s page features the product: here is our beautifully designed lipstick case and colours available. I have no doubt this is a good, rich, pigment-filled lipstick. In the absence of any other information, I have to guess if Chanel is meant for me. (Let me unpack this for you: by focusing on the product and not the consumer, Chanel leaves me feeling the product isn’t marketed to me personally, and makeup is a very personal choice.)

Bobbi Brown Luxe Shine Intense – CAD$43: Bobbi Brown’s advertising features women with different skin shades. I feel so much more comforted by looking at the photos of the shades on olive skin. I feel, as a woman of colour, that Bobbi Brown recognizes that women come in many colours. I also feel that Bobbi Brown understands the pain point of trying to buy an expensive, non-returnable product and not knowing if it will do its basic function: make me look good.

Note to all advertisers of makeup: with coronavirus, we won’t be using testers at the store. What will you do now?

Selena and I talk about a few more products, and then I take a deep breath before going to the Shopping Cart.

Surprise #1 – My account info is still active

It’s been a few years since I last shopped online at The Bay. I expect my account to have been deactivated. It’s not. It needs a little updating, but that takes 20 seconds.

Surprise #2 – I have no trouble using a used gift card

My gift card has been used for in-person purchases. I am expecting a little trouble because of this, but there is a section where I can check my gift card balance online, and I have $163. Applying it to my shopping cart is easy peasy.

Time & money: 2.0 hrs, $227

Would I do it again? is improving. I didn’t like how some luxury brands like Chanel and Dior have to be searched by themselves, but other than that, the retail experience was OK. I would shop here again.

Shopping for clothing at Banana Republic

I like Banana Republic (BR). If I’m shopping in person, I’ll try everything on, but since I’m shopping online, I want to minimize the risk of a return. I decide to look at the category where I’ve had the most shopping success in the past: dresses. I check my closet for BR dresses: I’ve got three. I check their sizes, styles and colours, and bring them down to my computer in case I need to check more details while shopping.

Banana Republic groups their clothing by category and occasion

BR has their dresses categorized. If this isn’t revolutionary to you, have you ever been to an online clothing site that shows pages and pages of items of every type, length, style, and season, all sorted by price? It’s like an online garage sale. You might find what you want but you will probably give up before you do. The categories immediately give me a sense of where to look to get what I want. There’s Easy go-tos, Dress up it’s Friday, Instant sunshine: floral dresses, Fresh start: little white dresses, and Maxi & midi dresses. I go to Instant Sunshine and start clicking.

After looking at a dozen items, I choose a pretty dress and this is where I see the genius of BR’s page design.

Banana Republic understands pain points

Every question I have is answerable on this page, starting with huge photos of the dress style in 3 possible colours and a video showing how the dress moves. As Jackie said, erase or minimize all the customer’s pain points. My pain points are:

  • Is there one in my size?
  • Will it fit me like it fits the model?
  • What other colours are there?
  • What does it look like in real life?
  • Can I return it?
  • Does it have to be dry-cleaned?
  • What are the reviews for this dress?

Banana Republic is your fashion adviser

What do I wear with it?

I have trouble with this question ALL. THE. TIME. My favourite shops have fashionistas who advise me. On most other sites, I don’t buy accessories because I can’t imagine how they’d look together. Not Banana Republic. I was blown away by this section, which gives me three possible looks to combine with this dress. This section convinced me to choose a riskier colour because I could buy accessories that would dress it up or down.

It took me over 2 hours to pick a dress costing $87 but 10 minutes to double my purchase order with slingback shoes in bone for $91.

The checkout experience is painless and fast fast fast

It’s time to check out. This section takes maybe 5 minutes to complete, even though it’s been years since I last shopped online with BR. Everything works perfectly: my account is still active, I can check the gift balance online, the gift card is accepted immediately, and BR gives me choices about shipping.

Time & money: 1.5 hrs, $198

Would I do it again?

I would definitely shop at Banana Republic online again.


I gained a lot of insight writing this piece.

This post is about the User experience (UX) at three online retailers: how I felt when I was using the websites and the problems I encountered. If I hadn’t been trying to use up three different gift cards in one sitting, the differences in UX would not have been so striking. I would say that the average person doesn’t normally think about the UX at all. There are a lot of business processes that are only noticed if they don’t work, among them admin, filing, organizing, invoicing, and now, the user experience on a website. Reduce customer pain points. Got it.

I notice my pain points are similar although I’m buying different products: shoes, makeup, and clothing: will this take a long time, will I be able to get it online, will it look good on me, is it good value, and will I be able to return it? As we can see, I was able to complete my purchases at two of three retailers. I’ll do a follow up post when I receive all my packages, because fulfillment is definitely part of the UX.

Refining business processes is what I love doing. It’s a never-ending process of refining and tweaking. If you would like to talk about your business processes, let’s talk.

About The Author

Entrepreneur. Blogger. Genealogist. Volunteer.

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