March 2002  

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 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 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 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.

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