Avoid 1999's Errors for Holiday 2000

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Despite a strong surge in online shopping during the 1999 holiday season, it was a difficult time for many e-tailers. More than a few subscribed to the "Field of Dreams" approach to Internet shopping: If you build it, they will come.

And come the shoppers did, in record numbers. Many of them, unfortunately, discovered that their favorite e-tailers lacked the necessary systems on the back end to ensure a satisfactory shopping experience.

Customer service was weak, inventory management was disappointing and gifts did not arrive when promised.

How can companies provide a better online shopping experience this holiday season? That's a question the better companies have been working on since Dec. 26 of last year.

The following are the key areas of focus:

• Troubleshoot. Many companies have invested in new Web sites for the upcoming holiday season. Will your new site be operational well before the holiday season arrives, to give you a chance to weed out unforeseen problems that might arise? If not, hold your breath and hope.

• Streamline your site to make it as fast and easy as possible for the consumer to navigate.

Many of us living in the e-world every day have grown accustomed to the speed of a T1 line, but there is a huge audience sitting at a home computer with nothing faster than a 28K modem. Hopefully you've kept those consumers in mind when building your new site.

• Do you have enough "stuff?" If not, or if you sell out faster than anticipated, how quickly can you get more? If you are making your own products, are your factories ready? If you drop-ship products, are all your vendor relationships in place?

• "How many do you want?" If you are a start-up or a company making its first real push into the online world, you may be challenged to accurately estimate your online demand. Companies that have been around for years will have more of a history that should help them on forecasting.

• Manage expectations. Many companies learned the hard way last year that it's not just the taking of the order, it's the fulfilling of that order that is the crucial step. It is better not to take the order in the first place than to disappoint or even anger the customer by dropping the ball on fulfillment.

• Do you have the bodies? Are all your fulfillment procedures in place? Do you have enough staff for delivery? If you ship products, are all your relationships in place with the couriers? Don't wait until Nov. 15 to tell them that you expect to triple the number of shipments you'll make in December.

• Does your Web site clearly spell out your shipping policies? Can you afford to offer free shipping? Can you afford not to?

The last issue is really the first one. It doesn't matter whether you use the one-to-one lingo that's in fashion now. What truly matters is your approach to the customers. Are you really putting them first?

The customer gets to choose how to reach you. If you are a multichannel retailer, it's fine to try to drive traffic to your Web site. But also recognize that there are times when the Web may not be the best choice for your customers, so have a 24-hour, toll-free telephone number they can use. If customers would rather come in to one of the bricks-and-mortar stores, that's fine, too.

Customer service means when it's convenient for the customer. Have 24-hour customer service because you never know when a customer is going to feel the need to speak with you. There's nothing more frustrating than having a problem and calling the company, only to hear: "Our offices are currently closed."

If you listen to your customers, they'll tell you where you need to improve.

So the holiday season is just around the corner. We've all built the Web sites of our dreams and we know the customers are coming. I'll leave you with one more question to determine your readiness.

Have you asked yourself all the right questions?

• Chris McCann is president of 1-800-Flowers.com Inc., Westbury, NY. Reach him at cmccann@1800flowers.com.

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