Yahoo Merchants Concerned About Bad Ratings

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Yahoo merchants are worried that Christmas gifts that cannot be delivered on time for reasons beyond their control may result in poor rankings for them. And they worry that those poor ratings may affect business.

Two weeks after customers place their orders with Yahoo's ystores, which are shops that rent a spot to sell products on, Yahoo automatically sends customers an e-mail asking if they would like to rate the merchant's service. After customers use the rating system, which ranges from one star for poor service to five stars for excellent service, Yahoo places stars on the site based on how the majority of customers rated the merchant.

Although the rating system has been in place since the fall, the probability of unhappy customers and poor merchant ratings is heightened if shoppers do not receive holiday orders in time. Although Yahoo merchants posted deadlines for ordering, many customers placed gift orders after deadlines.

"We had about 2,000 orders that came in after our cutoff date of Dec. 13. Those are all sure 'awfuls' [in ratings] as far as we are concerned," said one ystore merchant who preferred not to be named. Although the retailer has received excellent ratings to date, shoppers upset over not receiving holiday gift orders could voice their opinions, regardless of whether they are justified.

Heavy snow in the Midwest is also delaying some holiday shipments.

"I'm starting to worry about the `awful' ratings that will be the result of weather-related delays, especially from customers who did not read (or ignored) our published cutoff dates for holiday deliveries," according to a post on the ystore message board.

Although the five-star system sounds reasonable, merchants say they often have unreasonable customers who post bad ratings even if the shipping delay was not the store's fault.

"To base a shop's ranking on this rating is unfair, invalid and [unreliable]," one merchant stated on the ystore message board. "We are deriving percentage ratings from a pool of people who, for the most part, are unhappy. Either make it mandatory for shoppers to rate all orders ... or scrap the system totally."

When merchants voiced their concerns about the rating system at a recent meeting with Yahoo representatives, the representatives explained that Yahoo cannot change customers' ratings. They suggested that merchants call shoppers who give bad ratings, discuss the problem and ask them if they would change their rating.

"That would be fine, if we didn't have hundreds of orders a day to fill and could be taking more orders instead of talking to that one customer," one merchant said.

A spokesman for Yahoo said the rating system helps its customers choose merchants that deliver excellent customer service and helps to identify problems, such as a number of complaints from one geographic region that could be linked to one distribution center. In addition, merchants must fulfill a certain number of orders before they are rated. A couple of bad complaints would not result in a negative rating, the spokesman said.

Meanwhile, small Yahoo merchants are protesting some merchants' exemption from the rating system. Ystores willing to pay $5,000 a month for advertising and top billing on Yahoo's search engine are exempt from the ratings. Merchants fear that some will have to pay the $5,000 to protect themselves from bad ratings by irate customers.

However, the Yahoo spokesman said the Internet service provider is looking to expand the rating system to its featured merchants but does not have the technology in place yet. Also, featured shops are brand-name merchants with a proven track record, he said.

In addition, Yahoo's policy of asking shoppers' opinions two weeks after they place their orders does not work for some retailers., for example, warns online shoppers that they will not receive orders -- especially some custom orders -- for four to six weeks. However, those who did not pay attention to that notice are often concerned when they receive a Yahoo e-mail after two weeks asking for their rating. "They haven't got it yet, so of course they think its bad," said June Waldman, director of product information at Comforthouse.

Despite these problems, ystore merchants say they are pleased with their affiliation with Yahoo and want to continue working with the company because of the volume of business, the effectiveness of its software and the public relations value of being associated with the ISP.

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