Confessions Of A Christmas Shopper

Let me just say it outright: I hate getting anywhere close to a mall during the Christmas season.

I remember when they opened Ontario Mills out here in Southern California. The evening news showed shoppers waiting two hours to land a parking space, so they could then go stand in line to enter a toy store.

“Two for shopping. Name’s Smith. Could we get a ‘no whining’ aisle?”

So this year, I decided that I’d avoid the malls altogether and do all of my Christmas shopping online.

The result has been a first-hand experience in what to do and what NOT to do in e-commerce. Herewith my rules for e-commerce:

Rule 1: Educate Your Employees On Store Policies

I got excited about an item one weekend, just perfect for Mom, and immediately put in a $100 order with instructions to ship it directly to her. I received a confirmation email saying it would be shipped the next business day and arrive 2 to 4 business days after that.

Whoops! Mom would be out of town then. UPS would make three delivery attempts and then send it back. I immediately replied to the email asking them to delay the shipment, and followed up with a call to the merchant’s toll-free number the morning of the next business day.

Bad news. Because of the Christmas crunch, the merchant couldn’t hold the package a week. I understood. Things get crazy this time of year. I cancelled the order with the intention to re-order it in a week.

The next business day, the person who had received my email called me to follow up. I then discovered that this particular product shipped on a monthly basis to arrive during the last week of the month… and the orders had to be placed by the 5th of any particular month. I’d originally placed my order on the 5th, but cancelled it. And if I ordered it now, Mom wouldn’t get it until the end of January.

I don’t know about your mother, but despite how much mine loves me, I’ve got about a one-week buffer on waiting for her Christmas gift to arrive. If it’s not there by New Year’s, she begins to lose the Christmas spirit.

What happened? The merchant lost an order. The order stayed cancelled and I found something else for Mom that would arrive before the tree came down.

Rule 2: Offer Be-Gifting Capability

Every major e-commerce site I visited offered the option to send the items to a different address other than the billing address (as a gift, for example). Note that I say major e-commerce sites.

During a visit to a non-profit site, where merchandise was more of a sideline than a primary concern, I found a gift that was perfect for a friend in England. The only problem was that in the merchant’s online order process, they didn’t have separate sections for billing and shipping addresses, or if they did, the section for the shipping address was on another page, and they gave no hint of that.

“No problem,” I said. “They offer a toll-free number for ordering. I’ll call in my order.”

So I called. Wound my way through the ordering labyrinth, then said I wanted to ship it as a gift. “No problem,” they said.

But to England…ah, there’s the rub. In fact, that was a problem. Though customers could order from just about any country and have it shipped directly, the fulfillment service that handled its toll-free number only shipped to the U.S. and Canada. I was offered another toll-free number for customer service, which might be able to resolve the situation. I called immediately, and heard an answering machine listing office hours that could make any golf-playing banker jealous.

At that point, I didn’t care if proceeds from my purchase would go to a good cause or if the gift would suit my friend to a T. I started thinking that there were plenty of other things that I could get at sites that I knew would have no problem with international gift shipping.

Rule 3: Be Prepared For Problems

After determining that a certain category of purchase could be tax deductible, I decided to buy myself a few items in that category as a Christmas gift to myself. I placed a $188 order at a major retailer’s site where I’d shopped before… and it was rejected.

What was going on? I tried a different credit card. Also rejected.

I called the toll-free line where I was told they were having a problem with credit-card processing. Not only that, but the operators used the same ordering system as the web site, so they couldn’t take the order by phone.

Their best advice? Try back in the wee hours of the morning when things are slower and *maybe* it would work.

Was I annoyed? Ah .yes. The site allowed me to enter an entire list of various items, and go through nearly all of the check-out before I discovered the fatal error. There’s an hour of my time I’ll never get back.

If the web team was on the ball, it would act quickly to put up a notice that there was a problem with order processing. If they were really on the ball, they’d take your email address and notify you when all was hunky-dory again.

Other sites have taken similar steps to deal with unexpected servicing issues, with far greater success. Throw me a bone: Send me a $5 gift certificate (as thanks for my patience).

The site that gives me the $5 gift certificate gets my return business. The site that gives me the runaround gets only a nasty email and it will take a lot more than $5 to get me to return.

The Bottom Line

When I bought a new car this year, I spent a while negotiating the dealership down to an amount I was willing to pay. I had a certain figure in mind. And even when we were $68 apart, and the dealership wasn’t budging, I walked.

As much thought as you put into designing your virtual catalog should also go into your ordering process. As much training as you give your employees on company knowledge and products should go into giving them knowledge of your fulfillment procedures and policies. And as much thought as you put into planning your site needs should go into planning how to deal with it when it’s not working properly.

When someone who was ready to buy walks out of your virtual showroom because you failed to meet their expectations, they’re not still on the lot, lingering in anticipation of your salesman running out to announce that things have been fixed. They’re gone.

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