Deliver on the promise

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E-tailers too often failed to deliver the goods over the holidays. While eToys, for example, brags more than 90% of its December orders got to customers on time, that means the top toy e-tailer broke its commitment to upwards of 10% of patrons. That's bad.

But this is worse: E-tailers over all managed to deliver orders on time and correctly just 65% of the time during the holiday buying season, according to an estimate by one e-commerce consultancy (see related story on Page 34). This is inexcusable. It is time for Web stores to grow up and deliver on promises made to consumers.

Web retailers would do well to study up on branding. A brand is the complex result of marketing and operating decisions leading to one simple point: The promise made to the consumer. Dot-coms, unfortunately, too often seem to think branding consists only of a blitz of ads to promote a catchy name and slogan leading consumers to a slick-looking site. Can't fill the orders on time? Don't have the listed goods in stock? Going to be late on delivery? Season's greetings, suckers.

Perhaps consumers were willing to cut e-tailers some slack over the holidays, recognizing the field was going through growing pains. It's likely most Web shoppers will give the Net another try even if they had a sour experience last month. But we also bet shoppers will become far more selective about where they click this year.

The same study that found pure Internet e-tailers got 65% of orders right also found Web sites of bricks-and-mortar stores managed to deliver 80% of orders without a hitch. That's still not great, but the higher score isn't surprising. Old stores have deep experience in managing inventory, distribution and customer satisfaction, and that gives them an advantage on the Web over e-tailers that naively assume slick marketing will overshadow deep infrastructure problems.

The novelty of Web retailing is over. The real game is just beginning. Customers soon will expect, and demand, glitch-free customer service and satisfaction. Any e-commerce outfit can hire a hot agency to produce a $25 million campaign to lure in visitors once. But few e-tailers will master the far more complex matter of running a retailing business and of articulating and keeping a brand promise. Those that win will be those that deliver the goods.

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