E-Tail Victim

With all the craziness in the post-September 11 world, it’s said that people will flock to the Net for holiday shopping. Many express concern about safety in crowded malls. Others are organizing their schedules to spend more time with loved ones. People are traveling less. Does this means they’ll buy online and ship gifts? E-tailers such as Jeff Bezos, CEO of mega-brand Amazon.com, think so. In a recent interview in The Boston Sunday Globe (November 4, 2001), he said, “This is going to be a great quarter for us. We are better prepared operationally than we’ve ever been — we are not going to bomb in the fourth quarter.” (Perhaps he should use a bit more caution in choosing his words.)

Although consumer confidence is said to have waned, the outlook is optimistic. A recent study conducted by International Communications Research reports that 75 percent of shoppers say they’ll spend at least as much as they did last holiday season. Fifteen percent plan to spend even more. (The study was conducted about two weeks after the terrorist attacks).

eMarketer predicts that the online buying population will hit 79.3 million worldwide this year. Vividence foresees a 25 percent boost in online shopping. Elsewhere, 15 percent of online shoppers say that they would be positively influenced by online promotions such as free samples, contests, games and sweepstakes… and good ol’ banner ads. Nearly 50 percent of respondents cited online coupons as being potentially persuasive. Consumers with a household income of $75,000 or more, when asked the likelihood of purchasing specific categories online, responded as follows:

  • Electronics — 39 percent
  • Music — 36 percent
  • Toys — 34 percent
  • Clothing — 32 percent
  • Housewares — 23 percent
  • Magazine subscriptions — 11 percent
  • Jewelry — 9 percent

The onus is on fulfillment. How many of you have been victimized by e-commerce? It happened to me not too long ago.

We recently ran some viral marketing campaigns to launch products for business-to-consumer (B2C) clients. In one of them, an element was sponsorship of opt-in email newsletters on coolsavings.com (the site with the squealing pig). The campaign goal was to create buzz among women 18-54. We incorporated an overlay of refer-a-friend treatments and an area to enter an email address for a free sample. During the campaign, a coworker and I registered (as a female consumer would) on coolsavings.com’s site. The process was easy, the pages loaded quickly, and the opt-out was clear.

About two weeks ago (months after the campaign), my coworker forwarded an email from a coolsavings.com partner, Home Goods. It was a classic case of effective targeting and viral marketing rolled into one. I had seven (yes, seven) weddings to attend recently and felt pressure to start holiday shopping early, so the promotion was right up my alley. I clicked on the email, landed on the site, spent 20 minutes perusing, dumped seven items into my shopping cart, went through a fairly painless check-out process, and spent about $400 — a big savings indeed for two wedding gifts and five Christmas presents. I received an email confirmation noting that my order would arrive in 7-10 days. I was set.

A week later, I received a strange email. I didn’t recognize the sender, SmartBargains, and assumed it was spam. In the auto-preview of my mail client, I saw a confusing message about something I opted in for. There were lots of letters and numbers referenced as an order of some sort. I finally realized that it was from Home Goods/coolsavings.com/SmartBargains. The three-line message said my order was cancelled due to a credit card error and directed me to contact my bank.

Aggravation. I sorted through folders to find the original confirmation and called my bank. It said there was no problem with the card, but there may have been a problem with my billing address, as I had just moved. The next step was to call a toll-free number and talk to a customer service rep. More frustration — and defeat of my purpose of buying online.

After the requisite hold music, a scripted voice with a mid-Western accent responded. All she could tell me was that my order was cancelled. When I asked how I could receive my order she said, “It was probably cancelled due to insufficient funds on your credit card.” UUUUUUUGHHHHH. It didn’t get any better, so I reordered the items. Five of the seven were not available.

An average consumer would connect this fiasco to the merchant, not the back-end vendor. As a media person, I shudder to think of the money the merchant and site pay for this level of commerce functionality. I spend countless hours poring over log files and third-party ad serving reports to learn why consumers abandon shopping carts.

According to Gartner, online holiday shopping sales are expected to reach $25.3 billion this year — a 39 percent increase over last year. What will happen to fulfillment this season? Some Amazon partners are offering in-store pickup instead of mailed packages. Other e-tailers are offering gift certificates.

My e-commerce fiasco hasn’t dampened my optimism as a media buyer in terms of the power and effectiveness of e-tailing. It has made me more cautious when selecting partners for my most-coveted clients’ campaigns.

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