Some E-biz Sites Still Don't Get Customer Service
By Stephen Lawton
If you're like me, and an awful lot of other folks, you did at least some
of your shopping this past holiday season online. This was the third years
that e-commerce was a viable alternative for consumers, so you would expect
that the e-retailers had finally gotten it right. Unfortunately, that's
not the case.
While 88 percent of U.S.-based Internet users shopped online this year,
only 70 percent of us actually bought something. That's down from last
year, when 74 percent of us used e-commerce, according to Retail Forward,
a Columbus, Ohio, market research firm specializing in the retail sector.
Of those actually shopping, nearly three-quarters said they had a good
shopping experience; that means one in four shoppers didn't, and therein
lies the problem.
Some major retailers just don't get it. For example, Toys 'R' Us recently
partnered with Amazon.com to sell its toys after the company discontinued
its own Web site. I know of one visitor who purchased a toy from Amazon's
Toys 'R' Us pages, but when she tried to return it to a brick-and-mortar
store, she was told the store could not take it; the toy had to be returned
to Amazon.com. Can you believe that? Unfortunately, I can.
The retailer, which last year tightened its in-store return policies,
now is telling its customers it can't make Web-purchased returns locally;
the customer has to incur even more expense and inconvenience by mailing
the return back to Seattle.
That's just nuts. If you have a receipt, which this person did, then why
not return the toy to the retail outlet? The company lets you return a
product at, say, its Sacramento store, even if you bought it in Foster
City. Can't Toys 'R' Us and Amazon.com figure out a way to handle returns
locally? Sure they can - but they didn't.
Here's another "deal" I hope you didn't make. Some companies had online
coupons that save you a few dollars, but still charge extra for shipping
and handling. In fact, at one store, the online price of an item was significantly
more than the retail price at a local brick-and-mortar store. The few
dollars off was no deal, and the handling fee is pure profit to the retailer.
Personally, I hate handling fees. If I go into a brick-and-mortar store,
I pay the posted price for an item; they don't add an extra $5 for the
right of ringing up my transaction. That's supposed to be figured into
the price. But go to some online sites and there's that nasty little fee.
Did you know that the average online shopper this past holiday season
spent $392, up from $330, in 2000? That's what the Pew Internet and American
Life Project said in a January report. Some 58 percent of all U.S. Internet
users have made some kind of online purchase, up from 51 percent a year
earlier. These are significant numbers, folks. We're spending a lot of
money online. Good customer service is possible. Companies like L.L. Bean
or Land's End are noted for their responsiveness, consideration for customers
and desire to make things right.
One brick-and-mortar company has made the transition to
e-commerce customer service well. Sears, the most traditional of all traditional
retailers, has some excellent services. If you go to the Sears Web site,
you can find coupons for purchases made on the Web. Lots of companies
have that, but here's the kicker: You can buy a product on the Web, search
the local retail outlets for stock, then pick up the item at a brick-and-mortar
store. If you have a problem, you return it to the local retail outlet.
That's the way it should be.
That combines the best of the Web - the ability to shop from your home
or office and get a Web discount - with the convenience of having a local
retailer. I used that service when I was shopping for specialty tools.
I found what I wanted, and then searched the local retail outlets to find
a store with that special item in stock. In my case, I went to the store
before I bought the tool to check it out.
Retailers need to know that online shoppers have had it with return policies
that are expensive to the customer, a lack of useful product information
on the site and confusing payment plans. It's bad enough that most sites
don't tell you how much shipping will be until you're ready to complete
the purchase, but adding a handling charge is simply indefensible.
Online shoppers must speak with one voice is demanding excellent customer
service from e-retailers. The days of a company using the excuse: "This
is new technology and we're just getting our feet wet," are gone. If you
want to play in the e-commerce arena, you need to invest in an infrastructure
and design that is buyer friendly and easy to use. You must provide top-quality
customer service. Otherwise, you'll find your online sales go the way
of other dot-com revenue - into the ether.