December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Reaching for the stars

From the Michelin Guides to Amazon.com, the five-star rating system is shaping consumer choice in everything from B&Bs to books. Now, AOL web merchants are getting the five-star treatment in new online store ratings from Atlanta-based Elrick & Lavidge Marketing Research. Rating web stores is nothing new-the E&L ratings at AOL replace those formerly supplied by BizRate. The twist is that rather than hoarding store ratings for AOL members or limiting distribution to a dedicated web site as in the past, the portal will blow out the ratings big-time by putting them on AOL.com for all to see, starting this fall.

The new five-star ratings, based on 10 criteria ranging from product selection through customer support, will be flagged throughout AOL in a promotional plan that’s still being worked out. Meanwhile, the ratings, to be updated quarterly, have been available to members and at Onlinestoreratings-.com since June. Current ratings are based on the experiences of hired anonymous shoppers-two for each site. The market research firm expects to add ratings based on feedback from real shoppers in October.

The ratings are posted primarily to drive performance improvement, says Ilene Lanin Kettering, senior vice president at E&L. Reports based on the findings go to individual merchants. “The idea is to make sure consumers have an optimal experience on every AOL site,” she says.

As to whether the click-to-compare ratings are driving shopper behavior by causing them to choose one site over another, Kettering says it’s too early to tell. And though she adds that the goal is not to set up competition among AOL merchants, web stores that don’t hop to it once site weaknesses are spotted could feel the pinch. For example: Want to send identical care packages to your college students on two different campuses? Go to the ratings’ food and wine category and filter out which sites have multiple shipping options; chances are the winner will be the site that makes it easiest.

While it may be too soon to tell if the ratings alter AOL shopper behavior, merchants seem to be getting the message already. Since the first E&L ratings went up, “At least 40 AOL merchants have called us for more information on what they could do to improve their sites,” says Kettering.

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