Do e-tailers shop on-line?

Given the number of unpleasant on-line shopping stories I’ve heard lately, it seems as though people running Web stores haven’t experienced an e-shopping experience themselves.

Last summer I had a run-in with Chapters Online. Books advertised as “usually ships in 24 hours” were delayed for weeks without any notification as to why, orders were cancelled without my permission, and confusing e-mails were sent that contradicted what I was told on the phone. In the end, some irate complaints saw that the books were delivered along with some apology coupons.

Apology notwithstanding, the experience annoyed me sufficiently to take my business, which promptly managed to screw up an order in much the same way. After that, I resorted to shopping by price and free shipping deals.

Ironically, I was assigned a story on the e-mail management system implemented at Chapters Online for our Nov. 19, 1999 issue. The point of the system, as told by the Chapters Online president Rick Segal, is to ensure customer e-mail doesn’t go ignored for long periods of time and that problems are dealt with swiftly.

Why then did fellow writer Cindy Steinman have to phone Chapters Online to complain that her e-mail about a problem has gone unanswered for weeks? (The problem itself is rather stupid: she can’t change her Chapter 1 card number on the site, even though they made her get a new card in the brick-and-mortar store.) And why is she still waiting for the follow-up call she was promised?

Just before this article went to press, Chapters messed up my order again. I received an e-mail alerting me that my order of Saving Private Ryan was delayed, which would have been a nice notification except that I didn’t order Saving Private Ryan. I ordered two books and a CD, none of them remotely related to that movie. I had to wait on the phone for 23 minutes to talk to a customer service representative who, after a lengthy conversation with his manager that left me on hold for an additional nine minutes, concluded that the e-mail was “obviously an error.” He assured me the video would not be sent and I would not be charged for it.

In the opinion section of our January 28 issue, Linda Musthaler told of her displeasure with a major toy e-tailer who delayed and eventually cancelled her order without bothering to check with her first. Although many people have been happy with their on-line shopping experiences, these unhappy tales are tainting the industry and could end up making or breaking some e-tailers.

The frustrating part is that so many of the problems encountered could be easily rectified with simple form e-mail (assuming the e-mail is correct, of course). When Chapters Online recently split my order that had qualified for free shipping because it was over $35, they didn’t bother to specify in the form e-mail that shipping would not be charged on the now two orders that were each less than $35. I assumed I wouldn’t be charged, but I had to take the time to phone them, wait on hold, and confirm my assumption.

A simple sentence stating that the shipping charge wouldn’t change would have saved me the angst and them the cost of a call to their customer service department.

Perhaps if the people in charge did more on-line shopping themselves, both at their store and others, they’d clue in as to what’s good and what’s unnecessarily annoying. Instead of merely hiring consultants to dictate the “best practises” or listening to what vendors say “customers want,” they should try being a customer several times. If they find something that annoys them on their site, they should fix it immediately. If they find a problem on another site, they should immediately ensure their site doesn’t have the same problem.