We’re shopping more

Beating up Internet retailers has become a media blood sport, but despite the hoopla over the industry’s problems more of us are buying online and reporting good shopping experiences than ever before.

A recent PC Data report shows online holiday sales up 169 per cent over last year, and an Anderson Consulting study about online sales customer service released Thursday may help to explain why.

“Things have improved significantly in almost every dimension,” says Robert Mann, an associate partner with Anderson Consulting.

It is debatable just how much the improved service contributes to growth in online sales, but clearly consumers are having better experiences this year than last, Mann says. Anderson conducted a similar study during the 1999 holiday season.

For starters, this year more than 92 per cent of all attempted holiday purchases over the Internet resulted in a successful transaction, he says. That’s not perfect, but it is a notable improvement over the 25 per cent failure rate of sites in last year’s study, he says.

Bricks Gain on Clicks

Another trend this year: Traditional brick-and-mortar retailers with online stores are gaining on the pure Internet retailers with customer service, he says.

In the 1999 study, most Net retailers significantly outperformed traditional retailers in areas such as order processing time and in-stock notifications.

Last year, it took up to three minutes longer to complete a transaction on a retailer’s site than on a Web-only retail site. This year, that gap is down to one and a half minutes, he says. And traditional retailer sites have actually surpassed pure-Net sellers by a single point on product availability notifications (together, 95 per cent of the sites offer this).

Two of the three sites the named as most improved are traditional retailers, Mann says. The most improved is Gap.com; the third most improved is Borders.com. IQVC.com, which Mann calls a traditional catalog-based retailer, notches the second spot for most improved.

The study also shows that online retailers as a whole are improving service. For example, on average it takes a consumer 25 per cent less time to complete an order (down from 12 to 9 minutes). About 47 per cent of sites now forecast a delivery date (up from 40 per cent last year).

Sites also offer more information about item sale and shipment. About 82 per cent of sites now give e-mail order confirmation, up from 67 per cent last year. Also, 26 per cent of sites offer shipment notice by e-mail, up from 21 per cent last year.

What’s more, online retailers are scoring with buyers this holiday season by moderating delivery promises, Mann says. Last year, on average, sites promised products within five days but didn’t deliver for nine days.

This year, sites are warning customers about long delivery times, he says. The average promise is a ten-day delivery, but actual shipments are averaging six days. Any retailer looks better when it performs better than promised, he says.

Hands-On Buying

In its study, Anderson employees tried to place 563 orders at 97 Web sites during a seven-day period, shipping products to Atlanta, Chicago, and San Francisco, Mann says.

Of the 97 sites, the study calls 46 percent traditional retailers with online sales; 39 per cent pure Internet retailers; and 15 per cent traditional catalog merchants operating online.

Participants completed 517 of the 563 purchase attempts, not deeming an order a failure until three attempts, he says. The most common reason for an incomplete sale: missing sites. Whether down for repair or simply overwhelmed by traffic, downed sites were the cause of most missed sales.

Anderson also names the best of the best, Mann says. Criteria are time to place order, number of “perfect” orders, shortest delivery time, and smallest shipping charges (as a fraction of total cost).

Who’s best? Not the big names you might guess. The study names Outpost.com as the best pure-Internet retailer and Champs Sports as the best traditional retailer with an online presence, Mann says.