Survey: Online Service on the Wane

Are online merchants starting to take Web buyers for granted? That’s one possible explanation for the decline in online customer service found by Chicago-based e-Tailing Group.

Among the 100 Websites that e-Tailing Group shopped during the fourth quarter of 2005 for its eighth annual Mystery Shopping Study, 7% did not feature a toll-free phone number, up from 5% during holiday 2004. And whereas 71% of the sites visited during holiday 2004 had onsite guarantees, only 62% did this past holiday season. Of those with guarantees, 88% offered 100% satisfaction guaranteed, down from 93% the previous year.

Despite an extra business day on the pre-Christmas calendar, thanks to the holiday falling on a Sunday, only 15% of the sites surveyed extended their standard shipping cut-off dates, compared with 23% in 2004. What’s more, it took an average of 30 hours to receive a response to e-mails, compared with 26 hours the previous year.

“Merchants appeared to be less vested in customer service as more drill-down was required to find answers to questions onsite,” e-Tailing Group president Lauren Freedman said in a statement. “Contact information was not as readily available, and FAQs and guarantees were generally less visible.”

The study did single out 10 merchants as providing stellar online service, however. Listed in alphabetical order, they are women’s apparel retailer Ann Taylor, online-only high-end apparel and home goods discounter Bluefly, online jeweler Blue Nile, gadgets and gifts cataloger/retailer Brookstone, consumer electronics merchant Crutchfield, athletic-shoes merchant Finish Line, apparel cataloger/retailer J. Crew, cosmetics cataloger/retailer Sephora, online discounter SmartBargains, and music and movie merchant Tower Records.

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