E-tailers lack customer care

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It takes hours to process a transaction. There are a million people at the same store slowing you down. You can't find what you want. There are no salespeople to help you. So why not shop online?

That is online.

The very things that make online shopping so wonderful-speed and efficiency-are the largest drawbacks in terms of personalized customer service.

Many shopping sites claim to offer the best of both online and offline worlds, but sometimes customer service is just lip service. Last week, Advertising Age went undercover to test the personal attention of 21 of the Web's biggest e-shops. From toys to books to clothes, we found out how fast and helpful Web service is-and isn't.

More than half the sites we visited responded to a request for personal service within five days-with varying levels of helpfulness. Within hours of the initial e-mail, music and movie e-tailer CDnow suggested movie options for a fan of director Stanley Kubrick. "If [you] like his science fiction work," the customer service rep wrote, "[you] may like something different than his film noir style films, or films like `A Clockwork Orange.' I would recommend Francis Ford Coppola. I would recommend Oliver Stone."

COMING THROUGH WITH THE GOODS

While Gap Online took a few days to respond to a request for a holiday gift that was hypoallergenic, it eventually provided a list of colors, styles, prices and serial numbers of items that could be ordered from the site, as well as phone numbers of Gap stores across the country. The sites for L.L. Bean and Lands' End wrote back to request more information, then responded within a day with lists of items.

To a request for a children's book about horses or sailboats, barnesandnoble.com apologized for not finding anything about sailboats, but produced an equine option complete with recommended age range and shipping availability.

Seven sites did not respond at all, including large department stores (Bloomingdale's, Macy's and Nordstrom), electronics outlets (Value America and 800.com), Amazon.com and eToys. Toys "R" Us' site was down several days the week of Nov. 15.

Four sites sent quick, canned replies inviting us, as Buy.com did, to look for information on the Web site without actually offering any help. A question to Egghead.com-about a specific recommendation for a camcorder-let us know that the "Web site has the most accurate, up-to-date information on product availability, pricing, shipping, warranty and technical information" and that if we were unable to access the site, we should call the sales department. No mention of a camcorder was made.

KBToys.com and J.C. Penney Co. told us they'd get back to us in 24 to 48 hours; they never did.

SHOPPERS WHO SEEK SHALL FIND

As with the Web in general, there's a lot of information on these shopping sites and a Web-savvy consumer can probably find what he or she wants. Many, like Amazon.com or eToys, have comprehensive, clearly defined help areas as an integral part of the site. Sometimes sending you back to the Web site also can answer the question: DVD Express offered circuitous assistance with our Kubrick query by telling us to "simply enter the title of any film by Kubrick, and you will see a list of suggested DVDs at the bottom of the detail page."

No matter how helpful the actual site is, many consumers still require a personal touch. Even with the rise in online holiday shopping, don't expect the malls to be empty this season.

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