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Online Customers Want Personal Contact, Study Says

Almost half of cyber-shoppers say they would spend more money on the Web if they had the chance to communicate directly with a customer service representative while they browse through an e-commerce Web site, according to Charles Hamlin, the head of online research firm NFO Interactive Inc., Greenwich, CT.

Hamlin told DM News his firm has found that virtual businesses should consider adding more personal interaction to their Web sites. But he speculated that cost issues discourage some marketers from hiring customer service staff.

“I think the last thing Jeff Bezos wants to do is add a whole cadre of people to Amazon.com to deal with customers,” Hamlin said, referring to the CEO and half-owner of the online bookselling giant. “They want to keep their costs down and stay competitive.”

NFO Interactive, a unit of NFO Worldwide Inc. which provides data to technology research firm Jupiter Communications LLC, New York, surveyed 2,321 consumers on the topic earlier this month. More than a third of the study's respondents indicated they have already bought goods online, and they would buy more if they could communicate with a company representative while they shop. A substantial number of consumers who said they have never bought online — 14 percent — said they would become Net shoppers if they could contact a rep through e-commerce sites.

The other half of consumers in the survey said talking to a customer service representative would not spur them to buy more.

The equipment necessary for interaction between Web surfers and online sites could be relatively low-tech. Consumers with dual telephone lines could call toll-free numbers while they shop, or sites could install technology that allows real-time communication through the screen itself, similar to a chat room.

Still, the high cost of telemarketers or other staff dedicated to handling consumers' questions could be forbidding to some firms. For many merchants, the whole point of marketing online is to cut costs associated with traditional brick and mortar marketing or telesales. Hamlin acknowledged that the companies most likely to use live consumer interaction might be catalogers such as L.L. Bean, Freeport, ME, and Lands' End Inc., Dodgeville, WI, which already have large customer service staffs inhouse.

“I think in some areas, this could be done relatively easily from central locations where you get scale advantages,” Hamlin said.

Some product categories — especially those consumers perceive as risky to buy without a personal inspection — likely would see greater benefits from person-to-person interaction than others. While books, CDs and low-end branded products probably wouldn't move out of the warehouse any more quickly with the help of sales reps, merchandise like clothes might sell better.

“Risk is a function of price and being able to touch something,” Hamlin said. “If customers don't know exactly what they want, that's when a clerk and some of the traditional retail [methods] might play a role.”

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