Pot calls kettle black

If you’ve ever sent me an e-mail, you know that I don’t always respond promptly. I won’t even pretend to defend myself — except to note that I’ve never promised to reply within, say, 24 hours.

But Urban Outfitters did promise, and it didn’t reply within 24 hours — or 48 hours, or 72 hours. And when it did finally get back to me…

Let me backtrack a second. Wednesday afternoon I received Urban Outfitters’ Early Fall catalog. Within its pages were a pair of black wedge shoes — not just any black wedge shoes, but my dream black wedge shoes. The next morning I logged on to the Website; my shoes were nowhere to be found, until I retrieved the print catalog and typed in the SKU number. My shoes, alas, were something of a mirage; according to the search result, they were “no longer available.”

Unwilling to let the dream die, I hit the “contact us” button and e-mailed Urban Outfitters: “Will the Betsy wedge become available again? And how can it be ‘no longer available’ if it was featured in the Early Fall catalog I received just yesterday? Thanks…”

As I sent off the e-mail, the site assured me I’d have an answer in 24 hours.

One hundred and eighteen hours later, I received a reply: “If you have any further questions or comments feel free to email us at Service@UrbanOutfitters.com. Sincerely,” That was the entire message (and yes, it ended with the comma after “Sincerely”).

This lack of service — and lack of respect — is what separates average e-commerce sites from stellar ones like those honored with this year’s Annual I.Merchant Awards. When you read our profiles of the winners (beginning on page 20), you’ll see to what extremes some of these companies will go to woo and win customers.

Smaller merchants that have to compete with gargantuans such as Amazon.com and Wal-Mart (and given the breadth of their offerings, just about everyone is competing against Amazon.com and Wal-Mart nowadays) also go out of their way to compensate for being unable to meet the megamerchants on price. For instance, as Margery Weinstein notes in her article “Beating the category killers” (page 9), automated e-mail responses are a no-go at niche bookseller Bas Bleu; only a personalized response will do.

Not to keep picking on Urban Outfitters (which is a company I have fond memories of; in college I worked at an ice cream parlor near the original store in West Philly, so I like to think that I was in on the brand before it went national), but if it had answered my question in its tardy e-mail, I would have overlooked that it took five days to receive the response.

Then again, I’m not sure that all of the people to whom I owe e-mail responses (or whose voice mail messages I haven’t responded to either, for that matter) will be placated by my saying to them, “Yes, it took me almost a week to get back to you, but, hey, at least this is a personal response…”

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