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Have Yourself a Merry Online Christmas

Will this year’s cyber-shopping experience be merry and bright? One expert predicts yuletide cheers from shoppers who pick their sites wisely.

Shoppers who ventured online during the 1999 holiday season found the experience about as joyful as a pre-Christmas Saturday at the mall.

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Instead of long lines, customers found checkout procedures so confusing and frustrating that some 88% abandoned their electronic shopping carts in the virtual aisles. Instead of surly clerks, they contended with unresponsive customer-service lines or waited as long as 72 hours for answers to email queries. Even those shoppers who slogged through the ordering process successfully often waited in vain for their packages to arrive.

And you can imagine what happened when Dad tried to return that shirt that looked red on the site, but turned out to be an alarming fuschia.

Christmas 1999 was, for many online retailers and their dispirited customers, a Grinchy experience. But there’s nothing quite like a near-disaster to focus the mind. During the past 11 months, many e-tailers have studied last year’s abysmal performance and mended their ways, says Kelly Mooney, customer experience officer for Resource Marketing, a consulting company that focuses on online marketing and communications.

“We will have a better experience this year,” she said cheerily from her company’s offices in Columbus, Ohio. “People will be surprised.”

Mooney is not some wild-eyed shopping enthusiast. Her forecasts are based on hard data, acquired over several months of grueling online shopping undertaken by her company during its Summer 2000 E-Commerce Watch. That study, the most rigorous examination of the online industry, used 500 consumer-based criteria to analyze the shopping experience on 50 leading e-retail sites.

The Resource Marketing shoppers spent more than 1,500 hours exploring content, testing functionality, interacting with customer-service representatives, and buying and returning merchandise. At the end, the team assigned eGold (for great), eSilver (for good), and eBomb (for truly appalling) awards to the retailers they surveyed (see tomorrow’s story for the winners and losers).

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And while Mooney concedes that summer shopping can’t approximate the crush of holiday sales volume, she said the study’s battery of tests showed evidence of specific customer-experience improvements, particularly in the following areas.

Fewer Technical Glitches. Last year, Mooney says, technical glitches prevented 25% of orders from being submitted. This summer, that problem afflicted only 8% of orders.

More Reliable Delivery. Last Christmas, some 86% of packages arrived when promised. This summer, 92% showed up on time. Meanwhile, fully 6% of the items ordered during the 1999 holiday season failed to arrive at all. This summer, that number fell to 0.6%.

Faster Email Response Times. It took an average of 48 hours for a customer-service representative to respond to an email query last year. During this summer’s survey, that time fell to 12 hours, and Mooney predicts it will drop to 6 hours this holiday season. In addition, most major sites have instituted 24-7 call centers that will help customers after business hours.

Quicker Loading Times. On a 56K modem (the speed suffered by most online shoppers), it took an average of 25 seconds for the main menu page on most sites to load last year. This summer, that speed improved to 17 seconds. Mooney says e-tailers must cut that number at least in half to satisfy most customers.

Free shipping. While fewer sites will entice users with last year’s promise of free shipping on all merchandise, most will offer free return shipping. Mooney says some sites will likely reward their best shoppers by picking up the tab for shipping on orders over $50 or $75.

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While Mooney praises many sites for making so much progress in so little time, she’s still far from satisfied with the online-shopping experience in general.

Take the thorny area of customer returns. According to Mooney, users take back 10% – 12% of all purchases. “The unhappy customer is the most important one,” she says. “If a customer is dissatisfied, he will tell 13 of his friends. If you make him happy, however, you’ve solidified him for life.”

Still, many sites stumble over this part of the shopping equation. If you buy Toys “R” Us toys through their partner, Amazon.com, and then need to return them, do you return them to Amazon or to Toys “R” Us? To the site or to the store? Mooney calls this a “blurred brand effect,” and she predicts trouble ahead.

“Customers want to know who’s taking responsibility for their experience and where to go if they’re unhappy. I suspect, for example, that Toys ‘R’ Us will be another fiasco this year,” Mooney says. “They haven’t figured out how bricks and mortar plays into the whole experience, and they’re not prepared to handle Internet customers’ returns in the store. People will be disappointed.”

Mooney also warns against general-merchandise sites. “Wal-Mart hired Jeanne Jackson from Banana Republic, then pulled down the whole site and relaunched it,” she says. “We saw little improvement in performance this summer, but we’ll continue to put it through the wringer this holiday season.”

More importantly, Mooney says, Wal-Mart has failed to entice its customers to shop online. “There’s not a better assortment of merchandise, or better prices. And returns were painful.”

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If Walmart.com leaves much to be desired, Mooney says, Kmart’s site, BlueLight.com, is even worse. “That site showed a real disregard for service,” she says. “Some phone numbers didn’t ring through, and BlueLight specials were often out of stock.” Email queries were frustrating, and customer-service reps snippy, she says.

Out of 50 sites surveyed, Wal-Mart and BlueLight ranked 49 and 50 respectively.

Mooney offered one final warning for holiday shoppers: Given the recent attrition among pure dotcom sites such as pets.com and furniture.com, customers should stick with retailers they know and trust. “There is reason to be leery,” she says.

But despite this caveat, Mooney remains optimistic about the coming season, as long as shoppers don’t wait until the last minute to place orders. “The second week in December will be the busiest week of the season,” she says. And while shipping companies say they have geared up, late shoppers could risk having Santa’s toys arrive on December 26 if they don’t log on soon.

Part Two: Shopping Sites With Sizzle

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About the author

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

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