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Shopping Sites With Sizzle

Just in time for Christmas, a team of hard-shopping Web analysts hands out eGold awards to the best e-commerce sites — and eBomb awards to those that may deliver a lump of coal this holiday season.

This month, online shoppers across the country will fire up their computers to kick-off the biggest shopping season of the year. But given 1999’s e-commerce snafus and the current dotcom turmoil, consumers may feel edgy trusting their gift lists to the electronic-shopping gods.

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Not to worry, says Kelly Mooney, chief experience officer at Resource Marketing — a Columbus, Ohio-based consulting company that focuses on online marketing and communications. Plenty of online shopping destinations offer consumers a satisfying experience — and appear resilient enough to avoid the dotcom graveyard before Christmas.

Researchers at Resource Marketing spent the summer testing the customer experience at more than 50 leading e-tail sites, making more than 1,500 purchases in the process. And while the summer shopping season is less frenetic than the post-Thanksgiving melee, Mooney says many retailers used the quieter time to iron out site wrinkles in preparation for the holiday crush.

“The sites that work best have figured out how to use the digital medium,” Mooney says. “They deliver new value in a way that they couldn’t with catalogs or with call centers.”

Resource Marketing has bestowed six sites with eGold awards — recognizing exceptional content, service, and functionality — and nine others with eSilver awards, indicating a good overall performance. But the team also slapped six sites with eBomb citations for providing a “truly inferior online shopping experience.”

Sadly, some of the sites that had garnered Resource Marketing’s top honors have already fallen victim to the dotcom grim reaper. BeautyJungle, which earned an eGold Award, and Garden.com and living.com, which scored eSilvers, are all out of business, proving that even the best user experience does not guarantee financial success in this volatile marketplace.

Here are the firm’s ratings of currently functioning sites, which may help guide your own shopping strategy:

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eGold Awards

The Gap: “The Gap is doing a lot of things right,” Mooney says. Features that make it one of the best multichannel marketers include easy account setup and checkout procedures, and a no-hassle return policy that includes the option of returning merchandise to a Gap store.

Lands’ End: Mooney lauds this site for its excellent customer service, innovation, and overall user experience.

800.COM: This site allows customers to compare products. “It’s superior to being in a store and trying to find somebody to help you,” Mooney says.

Amazon.com: “Amazon is using multiple dimensions of the Internet to help you make smart purchasing decisions,” Mooney says. “For example, you can click on an electronic toy to hear the sound it makes, so you’ll know in advance if it’s likely to drive you crazy.”

eToys: “This site cleverly cross-sells relevant items to customers when they check out,” Mooney says. “If a toy you’re buying needs batteries, the site steers you to the right ones.”

eSilver Awards

Following are comments from Resource Management’s E-commerce Watch testers.

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Banana Republic: “A nearly seamless extension of the store and catalog.”

barnesandnoble.com: “Nails the basics and throws in some innovation.”

REI: “Delivers on its outdoor spirit through well-integrated channels.”

Victoria’s Secret: “A solid site with some original bright spots, like its ‘wish list’ feature.”

CDNow: “Strong overall with robust personalization features.”

Cooking.com: “A great shopping experience, but the site needs to keep innovating to keep up.”

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Fogdog Sports: “Doing so many things well, but ignoring the offline world.”

eBomb Awards

Beware of the following sites. Resource Marketing’s team warns that you may be better off at the mall.

BlueLight.com: “Free Internet service, but the site goes downhill from there.”

Foot Locker: This site received terrible rankings for account setup, order tracking, and gift wrapping.

Nike: Mooney says, “It’s trying too hard to be ‘authentic’ and not hard enough to be an e-commerce site.” Mooney did laud the company for its “the more you buy, the less you pay to ship” policy.

Walmart.com: “Doesn’t deliver a better assortment of products or better prices than the stores,” Mooney says. “And returns were painful.”

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Williams-Sonoma: “Such a classy look, but not much depth.”

Beyond.com: “Attention: quality control.”

Part One: Have Yourself a Merry Online Christmas

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About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.

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