Survey: Web Merchants Overlooked Customer Service During Holidays

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Online merchants' customer service efforts for this past holiday season lagged in many ways, according to the e-tailing group's eighth annual Mystery Shopping Survey, released yesterday.

The e-tailing group shopped 100 sites in the fourth quarter and compared them on customer service criteria including: hours to answer e-mail, number of clicks from selection of product through checkout and business days to receive order.

"Overall, merchants appeared to be less vested in customer service as more drill-down was required to find answers to questions onsite, contact information was not as readily available, FAQs and guarantees were less visible, plus time to receive answers to e-mailed queries increased," e-tailing group president Lauren Freedman said in a statement. Also, shipping deals were more conditional.

The e-tailing group also named the 10 top performing sites for customer service, which were, in alphabetical order: Ann Taylor, Bluefly, Blue Nile, Brookstone, Crutchfield, Finish Line, J. Crew, Sephora, SmartBargains and Tower Records.

One area illustrating the lack of customer service was onsite information, which was harder to find this year. A toll-free number appeared on 93 percent of the sites versus 95 percent last year. Only 26 percent of sites offered first-time user's tips versus 36 percent last year, and the presence of FAQs dropped from 84 percent to 73 percent.

Average time to respond to e-mails sent asking a customer service question was 30 hours this year versus 26 hours for the past two years. However, more of the responses were personalized versus automated, and the questions were answered correctly more often.

Though live help was available on more sites this year -- 27 percent versus 24 percent last year -- it was less likely to be in working order as well as less able to answer questions posed.

Holiday shipping deadlines were earlier this year despite an extra day on the pre-Christmas calendar, with just 15 percent of the sites surveyed extending standard shipping cutoff dates to Dec. 20-22 versus 23 percent last year.

Most shipping deals were conditional, and even those were offered less frequently -- 33 percent versus 48 percent last year -- and the thresholds were higher, with 42 percent of the sites that made such offers requiring purchases exceeding $100. Last year, 31 percent of sites required purchases at this level. More sites limited their shipping offers to specific products: 23 percent versus 16 percent last year.

Multichannel merchants offering free shipping to a store, however, rose to 17 percent from 7 percent last year.

The U.S. Postal Service gained ground as the carrier of choice for 43 percent of merchants versus 30 percent last year. Use of UPS and FedEx declined. The average number of business days to receive products was 4.5 versus 4.4 days last year.

The average clicks to checkout increased to 5.3 clicks from 4.8 in 2004 as some merchants separated elements like billing and shipping into individual steps.

Onsite search showed improvements. Keyword search was found on 97 percent of sites versus 95 percent last year. Plus, 64 percent of the queries with misspelled phrases delivered correct results versus 54 percent last year. However, advanced search appeared on only 23 percent of sites versus 27 percent last year. It appeared more often among sites selling books/music and toys/games as these categories require more complex search criteria.

Chantal Todé covers catalog and retail news and BTB marketing for DM News and DM To keep up with the latest developments in these areas, subscribe to our daily and weekly e-mail newsletters by visiting


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