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Study Measures Customer Service Tools Among E-Commerce Categories

BOSTON — The growing prevalence of customer service tools on e-commerce sites was highlighted in a study released today by the Direct Marketing Association at the DMA Catalog Council On-The-Road Conference.

Merchandising Scan was conducted for the DMA by the e-tailing group, an e-commerce consultancy.

“We looked at 100 sites across 16 consumer categories. Each of the sites was scanned to locate over 100 features within nine merchandising tool sets,” said Lauren Freedman, president of the e-tailing group, Chicago. “The tool sets ranged from search, profiling, promotional merchandising, customer service, multichannel and others.

“The real message out of this is that the category is the key driver in being a best-of-breed merchant. What works for apparel will not necessarily work for consumer electronics. You may need a product comparison grid for consumer electronics or computers, but for apparel, you might want to have a virtual model that would be the key to success in that category.

“There's been significant improvement in merchandising online in the past year. You are going to continue to see enhancements, and the best-of-breed merchants are going to continue to evolve. There will be a continued emphasis on multichannel conveniences, from greater in-store pickup and returns, to on-site catalog previewing. Also, improved search and maximizing upsells and cross-sells will likely be on the radar screen of most Web merchants.”

Highlights of the study included:

• All sites scanned offer search by department/category while 87 percent claim to offer keyword search. Also, 57 of the 100 sites sell via catalog as well as online.

• Ninety-two percent of the sites provide some degree of a personalized My Account feature. The most prevalent benefits include: e-mail and/or newsletter updates, 91 percent; exclusive sales/offers, 80 percent; and order history/status, 78 percent. Overall, 88 percent use targeted e-mail and 38 percent rely on newsletters to communicate with customers.

• Pre-orders/monthly programs were found on 29 percent of the sites. Using this tool were 100 percent of the pet and office supply sites, 86 percent of mass merchants and 80 percent of the books/music sites. Similar to offline merchants, 63 percent of the sites rely on seasonal areas and 74 percent organize themed areas to aggregate products.

• Overall, 24 percent provide product comparison tools, and this feature was on every computer and office supply site surveyed. While the overall presence of glossaries totaled 35 percent, categories such as drugstores (75 percent) and consumer electronics (67 percent) consider them important consumer self-help tools. How-to guides, found on 64 percent of the sites overall, are essential tools for 100 percent of the drugstore, office supply, pets and sporting goods sites, 93 percent of home/garden sites, 86 percent of mass merchants and 83 percent of both accessories and consumer electronics sites.

• Ask-the-expert features were found on 29 percent overall but all of the computer sites scanned.

• Overall, 69 percent of the sites offer gift certificates/cards, 67 percent supply gift suggestions and 65 percent feature gift centers. While gift registries were on 14 percent of sites, 57 percent of the department stores offer them. Gift search, found on 40 percent, is an underused tool that, when relevant, can help shoppers quickly sort through a merchant's inventory to find gifts.

• Thirty percent of the sites have Flash moving graphics, but the feature is found on 75 percent of the toys/games sites. The ability to zoom (47 percent overall), change colors (13 percent) or view a product in multiple dimensions (5 percent) is used most consistently on sites selling computers (60 percent, 40 percent and 40 percent, respectively). Use of zoom was highest among sporting goods sites (100 percent), department stores (86 percent) and mass merchants (71 percent).

• The proportion of sites offering first-time user tips fell from 52 percent in the second quarter of 2001 to 34 percent in the fourth quarter.

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