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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Online Retail Lacking in Service




NEW YORK -- This U.S. holiday season's online shopping numbers are being hyped as bigger than ever, but in the stampede of consumers to cyberspace, online merchants can't seem to keep up with customer service.


Online retailing will turn over $2.3 billion this season, Internet consulting companies have predicted. That's more than double last year's $1.1 billion.


But if there's a problem with their order, customers may be out of luck.


Jupiter Communications, an Internet consulting firm based in New York, conducted a study of 125 major online merchants and found that 42 percent of them either didn't post an e-mail address, didn't respond to e-mail when they had one, or took longer than five days when they did respond.


In general, web sites have been unprepared to respond to users' questions coming in via e-mail or web forms, Jupiter said. There are simply too many questions or problems for sites that offer complex products and many firms have never had a traditional call-in center.


"There's been so much focus on building a site that customer service quite honestly has been a bit of an afterthought," said Fiona Swerdlow, the Jupiter analyst who wrote the study. Unanswered e-mail and hard-to-find toll-free numbers were the most common problems, Swerdlow said.


Tony Fross, an account director with THINK New Ideas in New York, a computer consulting firm, tried to order from Cosmetics Counter, but his computer kept locking up. Several e-mails to the company were never returned, he said.


"That's very distressing," said Eli Katz, the chief operating officer of Fragrance Counter, which owns Cosmetics Counter. "We take a lot of pride in our customer service. But glitches happen, and that's certainly not how we want to operate our business."


Monique Elwell, a former Internet stock analyst, had a horrible experience last year when using Onsale.com, a web-based auction site and retailer that offers consumer electronics.


"Onsale.com ruined my Christmas," she said. Elwell said she ordered a CD player for her brother that was broken when he received it. It took four months before she was able to get them to credit her account with the refund.


Nevertheless, Stefanie Elkins, a spokeswoman for Onsale.com, said more than three-quarters of its customers return, and that has remained consistent even as the company's customer base has grown more than 20 percent every quarter since April 1997, when the company went public.


"We understand here that if we don't keep our customers happy, they're not going to come back," Elkins said.


But in general, "web sites are very, very slow in responding to customer inquiries via e-mail," said Ken Cassar, another Jupiter analyst. "Perhaps they think requests are less urgent if they are sent via e-mail."