Online Vendors: Grow Up

The button reads, “click to submit order.” Having done so, the genie in the cyber-bottle is summoned, and like lightning gone mad, the invisible fulfillment machine hisses, spits, and bellows behind the curtain until – voila! –¬†the set of Miles Davis CDs, the handsome array of neckties, or the wildflower wreath for Mom’s birthday arrive. Or don’t. Of course, when they don’t, the screams begin: Where’s the “money back” button?

A new study asks that same pointed question. Research firm Shelley Taylor & Associates of Palo Alto, Calif., have asked the hard fulfillment questions and classified a new malady in the process: Post-Transaction Anxiety Disorder, where shipping charges, sticker shock, and anxiety about whether items ordered online will arrive drive cyber-buyers’ sleepless nights. The research Taylor has published analyzes 100 consumer e-commerce sites (70 in the United States, which we concentrate on in our report, and another 30 in the United Kingdom) and their customer service practices.

Taylor weighed the sites against a set of 200 value questions to see just who “gets” online shopping. Just like last year’s study, ordering and checkout seem to be covered, but ask to see a receipt or send something back – well, that’s when trouble’s cauldron boils. Was it shipped 2-day or 7-day? Did it arrive on time? Was there a return label enclosed? as there a limit on when it could be returned? Could it be returned at all (apparently, all sales on Apple’s Website are final)? Could it be ordered on the Web, but not returned without calling an 800 telephone number? Studies have failed to address most of these “after the last mile” questions – until now.

While Taylor’s findings demonstrate that Websites have a nearly intuitive understanding of how to make the lightning strike, Web retailers, large and small, seem stymied by what to do once they hit their mark. Some of the difficulty, according to Taylor, starts with the “checkout path.” Only 36 percent of sites, the study says, indicate whether goods are actually in stock before the customer submits a credit card number. Only 16 percent of sites spell out their return policy during the checkout process. And that’s scary, because a mom without birthday flowers (due to an unmentioned availability snafu) is a mom scorned.

Says Shelley Taylor: “Online vendors need to grow up. They must stop thinking of their virtual stores as playgrounds in which all the other kids are begging to play. The game and the rules belong to the customer, not the retailer. Some of the hottest online retailers have yet to adopt the rudimentary customer service practices of their brick-and-mortar counterparts. The success of online stores will depend upon bridging the gap between the purchase and delivery of goods and effectively managing customer expectations through post-transaction communication.”

The companies were chosen as a not-quite-random cross-industry sample – sites that market technology, entertainment, flowers and gifts, books and music, apparel, sports goods, food and wine, food and garden, toys, health & beauty, and office supplies.

One of the most shocking revelations in the study is shipping charge roulette, where Web retailers charge pretty much any amount to ship their goods. While the study doesn’t address why these costs are high, it may be that in the race for profitability, every bit counts. Lesser-priced items are hardest hit by high shipping charges. In some cases it’s downright surreal: a $12 item Taylor researchers ordered from the Martha Stewart Website cost $18.90 to ship, making for a grand total of $31.89. Of online stores that charge for shipping, the average charge added up to 37 percent of the total cost of the order in the United States and 20 percent in the United Kingdom.¬†Proving that, while it’s indeed a new economy, the old ways of fleecing customers still apply.