HomeVisions Customers Prefer Traditional Shopping Baskets

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While Web merchants can look to e-mails from customers to help refine and enhance their sites, at least one merchant has found that those e-mails should not always be taken at face value.

Customers of household furnishings and accessories merchant HomeVisions.com sent e-mails requesting a quick-order function on the site, a feature allowing them to input an item number and be taken directly to an order page. However, since HomeVisions added the feature three months ago, the overwhelming majority of customers have continued browsing through the site and using its more traditional shopping basket.

"We received lots of e-mail requesting that function, but once we put it in, it hasn't significantly impacted the number of orders on the system," said Mike Bibbey, HomeVisions' director of e-commerce.

HomeVisions' catalog and its 8-month-old Web site, www.HomeVisions.com, are owned by Direct Marketing Services Inc., Chicago.

While the quick-order feature was aimed at catalog shoppers, only 25 percent of them use the quick-order form, he said. One reason for the low usage may be that the quick-order form does not show a picture of the product being purchased.

Experts in Web site usage believe HomeVisions' experience with e-mail as a suggestion box underscores a challenge all online merchants face: E-mail allows vocal customers to be even more vocal, making it difficult to know how to respond appropriately.

While HomeVisions has shown it responds to customers, the merchant should go one step further and obtain more qualitative information, "rather than just saying, 'We heard you want this thing so we slapped it on here,' " said George Conboy, research manager at Internet services firm K2 Design Inc., New York.

The next step is "[looking] at the e-mails that they're getting -- use that information as starting-off points to develop and refine project ideas based on actually talking to those people … to really stimulate a little bit of provocative discussion rather than just fielding requests," Conboy said.

Some e-mail requests or complaints from customers are more valid than others -- just like those made to customer service representatives via phone or in retail stores, said Lauren Freedman, president of consulting firm The E-Tailing Group, Chicago.

"[However], the great thing about the Internet is you don't have to keep it [the change] if it doesn't work," Freedman said.

Also, though customers have not entirely embraced the quick-order function, Bibbey said HomeVisions is not likely to pull it from the site since it's not a major investment. "But right now we're giving it prime space on the home page. We could use that space for other things if we don't make more money," he said.

"If it were a major expense, we'd look at whether or not it's going to save us money in the long run if customers use that, what percentage of customers we think would use that, and then start to take a closer look at how many people were actually asking for it," Bibbey said.

"Obviously, you can't just take a single customer e-mail and then spend money to make the correction to serve that customer instead of serving a greater portion."

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