Answerthink’s annual holiday shopping study found that online retailers are doing a better job of giving consumers a consistent shopping experience whether online or offline, but there’s plenty of other areas that can use some improvement.
Ninety-three percent of the Web retailers are presenting a consistent shopping experience from the Web channel compared to the other channels in which they operate (catalogs and brick-and-mortar stores), up from 82 percent last year. For example, the Web sites are offering the same merchandise for the same retail price as offered in the catalog or in the store. More Web retailers also added sales or clearance sections to their sites for 2001 (up from 19 percent in 2000 to 51 percent in 2001). Increasing numbers of sites are also providing direct access to their virtual outlet Web site.
The Holiday Web Shopping Study, which is conducted by Answerthink’s Retail Solutions Group, rated and compared 200 retail Web sites to evaluate site functionality, sales fulfillment and customer service. The retailers — a representative mix of pure-play online stores, catalog-based companies and bricks-and-mortar retailers — were each shopped twice, once in November 2001 and once in December by Answerthink retail professionals. Items were selected and purchased; delivery was documented; and the items were returned. The first shopping at each site was in mid-November; the second shopping at each site was on the date specified on the site as the last date that guaranteed Christmas delivery.
“It is gratifying to see how hard so many retailers have worked to make their Web channel worthy of the brands they have built in other channels, or on the Web itself,” said Ken Goldberg, managing director of Answerthink’s Retail Solutions. “Clearly, this is an indicator of the permanence and importance of the Web channel as part of a ‘total’ brand offering. Now it is time for these companies to connect the dots. They need to ensure that they have executed a consistent customer-facing strategy.”
The channel integration is not yet complete. According to Goldberg, retailers still need to address issues such as disparate systems, lack of integration and determining the role and method of Web presence in the stores themselves.
“We believe that key technologies will include real-time, cross-channel merchandise locators; enterprise clienteling applications; and robust front-office technologies such as call center applications, campaign management and other marketing tools,” he said.
Answerthink found a great deal of improvement among Web site content. Product descriptions were more robust in 2001 with 88 percent of the sites provided very detailed information about their products versus 50 percent in 2000. There was also a significant improvement in advanced searches (73 percent of the shopped sites offered it over 59 percent last year), gift finders, gift recommendations tools and product and buying tips.
Merchandise help tools, such as sizing and warrantee information, expert advice, beginning guides, manufacturer rebates, customer ratings and item specifications, are appearing on more Web sites. In addition, more sites are providing access to customer history and are implementing automated email systems that continually communicate the transaction status to the customer. Ninety-one percent of the sites shopped by Answerthink utilize automated email service up from 81 percent last year.
Along with product and buying information, marketing and merchandising campaigns are finding their way onto the retail Web sites. Coupon books, price matching, discussion forums, recipes, fun pages for children, parents’ pages and others are starting to appear. But the biggest improvement in Web retail in 2001 was the frequent introduction of customer service tools such as shipping address books and retention of billing information. The percentage of sites offering multiple shipping options increased from 71 percent in 2000 to 93 percent in 2001. Sites offering comprehensive FAQ or Help pages were up from 68 percent to 95 percent.
Many retailers, however, are still missing the opportunity to personalize their sites to the shopper and do not utilize new technological advancements such as a “call me now” feature, which allows the customer to request that a customer service representative call them at a designated phone number. Less than half of the Web retailers surveyed are providing personalized product recommendations or “my page” features. Although interactive chat was more frequent in 2001, most retailers are still relying on FAQ and/or Help pages on the Web site.
Last-minute holiday deliveries made the grade this year, but online customers paid the price. Shopping cutoff dates for Dec. 21 and Dec. 22 were available on many sites, but the cost of Saturday or Sunday pickup combined with next-day delivery made last minute shopping for the Web shopper very expensive. Some sites are beginning to provide the remarkable customer service of free upgrades from standard shipping.
Retailers are more likely to have integrated their return process, allowing customers to return merchandise bought online to store locations. Ninety-one percent of retailers honored the simple “no questions” return policy, but only 18 percent provided simple return procedures. Returns processing at many stores is cumbersome and customer service associates are unfamiliar with store policy and/or procedures for accepting returns for products purchased online.
Retailers have grown accustomed to contacting customers by email with order and shipping confirmations, but Answerthink found that, to date, only 21 percent of sites shopped for the survey have continued an email campaign outside of order information with the customer.
“Looking forward, we would expect more advances in content management on the sites themselves. Increased efforts at managing loyalty are likely to start as Web-based efforts, and expand to stores thereafter,” Goldberg said. “True multichannel marketing may lag a bit until store systems catch up with Web and catalog’s inherent advantage of having customers identify themselves. But it will happen, and customers will opt-in to receive the benefits associated with loyalty.”