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Tracey S. Roth

Dot Com Commerce

BY TRACEY S. ROTH
Managing Editor, C@LL CENTER CRM Solutions


[January 5, 2000]

The E-Commerce Nightmare Before Christmas

Happy New Year! January 1st has come and gone and much to our surprise, we've all found ourselves to be Y2K-compliant. Journalists everywhere are furious over the fact that they have no disasters to write about. Not me. I'd rather talk about the real holiday-time disaster…the virtual face-plant experienced by many e-tailers who, let's face it, should have known better.

The best-publicized example thus far this season has been Toysrus.com, which was so overwhelmed with holiday orders that several days before Christmas it issued a statement informing consumers that it would be unable to deliver on some pending orders. The company openly admitted to problems in statements issued to the press and offered those customers with unfulfilled orders a $100 store refund. This is an expensive mistake not only for the Christmas selling season, but for the long-run…many online shoppers may find themselves hesitating before trusting Toysrus.com with their e-commerce dollars during the rest of the year, or the holiday season 2000.

Nearly every friend and colleague I quizzed about seasonal e-commerce shopping horror stories had a tale to tell. One of the most snicker-worthy being my friend who ordered 15 books from BarnesAndNoble.com and received the books in 12 different shipments over a three-day period. On each of these days, he received upwards of four boxes from the company, each containing one book. Talk about a jolly old elf…in this case, UPS, which must have made a killing on this shipping bacchanalia. To give credit where credit is due, BarnesAndNoble.com was responsive to his e-mail complaint and offered to refund his account for the excessive and unnecessary shipping costs.

Another friend received an online gift certificate from a co-worker and attempted to use it on iGadget.com to purchase a new camera to take holiday photos of his new son. He placed the order on December 15th and hoped to have it for Christmas, encouraged by the site's statement that said, "Please keep in mind most orders get shipped same day, however some take 48 hours before shipping." Great! As I write today, January 4th, my friend has received only auto-replies from iGadget.com, despite his string of increasingly sharp-worded e-mail requests for information. He has now begun hoping he receives the camera in time for his son's high-school graduation. I visited the site and found the initial positive shipping information quoted above followed up by, "Also please note certain items ship within 1-3 weeks" and "Please do not call for your order status. E-mails are usually answered promptly." In other words, we'll get your order to you sometime between tomorrow and three weeks from now. We do not have enough knowledgeable people on staff and do not plan on taking your phone call. We usually answer your e-mails promptly, but occasionally, we might utterly ignore you.

My sources also logged in several complaints about CDNow.com, including late shipments and a complete lack of personal service to e-mail inquiries.

What seemed to really irritate e-shoppers I spoke to were sites that were heavily advertised on television and were later found to be unresponsive and unable to deliver the goods. The gist of this complaint being that if you're going to hype your site and draw visitors, you had better be prepared to service those visitors. Next on the list were sites that had no evidence of customer support procedures when things went wrong (i.e., shipping errors, returns and product info questions).

Customer service, or the lack thereof, as a differentiator between competitors has become such an issue lately that I've seen evidence of sites that do little else but rate e-commerce merchants on the service they provide. Feedback Direct, an e-commerce consumer site which offers rankings by product category, recently released its Feedback 50, which they plan to update quarterly. This "top 50" was ostensibly compiled post-holiday season, though some of the companies that appear in the very top rankings are the same companies about which I have heard so may vociferous complaints, including CDNow.com, FogDog.com and Amazon.com. But the concept is a great idea and takes a step toward offering the surfing and buying public something it so desperately needs: some consumer protection and guidance. The site also allows consumers to post queries and complaints.

A realistic holiday e-commerce usability study was released just a few days ago by The Software & Information Industry Association, the principal trade association of the software code and information content industry. The SIIA report states that while 90 percent of all holiday e-commerce transactions went smoothly, the remaining 10 percent of transactions were characterized by bumpy or non-existent service to the point where consumers abandoned their purchases. Ninety percent may sound impressive, but consider what would happen to a brick-and-mortar store if one out of ten shoppers left his or her shopping cart at the front of the aisle before checking out.

The sheer volume of e-commerce transactions this Christmas proves that most consumers find the benefits outweigh the annoyances. International Data Corporation reported that 83 percent of e-tailers saw increases in sales over the last holiday season, and over a quarter of those Web retailers saw sales double. Those of us that tore our hair out in frustration during this year's shopping experiences, or, even worse, are still waiting on merchandise that never arrived, can only hope that this season served as a staging ground and a valuable lesson learned for those companies that failed to perform to expectations. Let's hope this year will go with fewer hitches.

For those of you that still have doubts, may I suggest you begin this year's holiday shopping in March?

Tracey S. Roth welcomes your comments at troth@tmcnet.com.


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