PC Flowers' Service Less Than Rosy

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Web merchants with a background in traditional direct marketing may have a reputation for better customer service than their upstart e-tail counterparts, but that rule doesn't hold true for PC Flowers & Gifts, according to a study released this month.


"PC Flowers really didn't live up to a par experience. It was a very poor experience," said intelligence analyst Jenny Barrett at technology marketing and consulting firm Resource Marketing Inc., Columbus, OH.


The firm investigated a number of e-commerce sites during the holiday season and found that the online florist - a partially owned subsidiary of old-school direct marketing giant Fingerhut Cos. - did not respond to e-mail inquiries, did not send e-mails confirming product shipments and did not post merchandise return information on its Web site.


PC Flowers, which claims to be the oldest e-commerce retailer in existence, guarantees 100 percent customer satisfaction and invites visitors to contact the company through an e-mail link conveniently embedded in its site. Unfortunately, according to Barrett, PC Flowers failed to respond to e-mail inquiries even after the research firm's initial two-week analysis of the retailer was over.


At press time, PC Flowers also had failed to respond to an e-mail sent three days prior from iMarketing News asking if the company sells cookie jars. (It does.) Additionally, the company's site was down for at least 45 minutes last Thursday - a PC Flowers customer service representative confirmed the problem but could not explain it.


Bill Tobin, PC Flowers' chairman, rejected the claims from Resource, saying "it's easy to poke holes" in a company like Fingerhut that handles 1,500 transactions per minute over the holidays, and sometimes many more. PC Flowers depends on Fingerhut for its credit card processing, customer support, product sourcing, fulfillment and returns.


"We've got a product that's got a 12-hour window, that's perishable, going to hundreds of thousands of locations," Tobin said. "And our track record speaks for itself." He said the company has consistently been ranked by major Internet portals as the best flower and gift service on the Net.


PC Flowers easily responded to Resource's criticisms that the florist did not ship invoices with its packages and does not supply return information on its site.


"Would you ever want to send a gift with a label of what you paid for it?" asked PC Flowers vice president of customer care Tom Ponosuk. He added that return policies are not as important for a company that sells perishable goods. When customers are unsatisfied with their flowers, the retailer either gives their money back or sends replacement flowers.


Ponosuk also said his own observation of the company's e-mail response and call center during the hectic week before Valentine's Day indicated that only 0.5 percent of inbound calls hung up before being answered.


Barrett acknowledged that PC Flowers performs well over the phone, but said that has no bearing on e-mail. "They didn't respond to any of our e-mail inquiries and we sent them four," she said. Online merchants typically answer electronic messages through an employee, a system that responds automatically based on keywords it finds in customer e-mails, or some combination of the two.


PC Flowers sent an e-mail confirming an order for a wreath placed by Resource, but did not confirm its shipment. Such confirmation is increasingly common among electronic retailers.


Tobin took a shot at Resource's findings, saying such studies are often done by firms that don't know what they're talking about.


Resource carries out the same study every six months, investigating 200 points of success criteria on several sites. "We put our years of experience from understanding customers, from understanding the interactive world and from understanding the retail world down on paper. Those criteria aren't random," Barrett said.


The firm also found holiday problems with Banana Republic, Toysrus.com, KBkids.com, 800.com and barnesandnoble.com. Resource is a consulting agency to Hewlett-Packard Co., design software firm Autodesk Inc., networking giant Cisco Systems Inc. and informational software company Adobe Systems Inc., among others.
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