September 17, 2003, 12:00 AM

Web merchants get an A for back-to-school shopping, study says

Web merchants score high in site performance designed to support back-to-school sales, The E-Tailing Group reports. Site search, real-time inventory data and cross-merchandising lead the class.

Web merchants scored high in web site performance designed to support back-to-school sales, market research firm The E-tailing Group Inc. reports in a study of 25 retail web sites surveyed in the third quarter of this year. Improved site search, real-time inventory data and cross-merchandising led the way to improved shopping experiences, with the average number of clicks to checkout down to 3.76 from 4.93 in the last survey conducted in the fourth quarter of last year. “Improved efficiency and on-site execution prevailed along with a back-to-basics approach to merchandising and multi-channel promotion,” says president Lauren Freedman.

The study notes that 92% of the web merchants in the back-to-school Mystery Shopping Study offer keyword site search, and that most sites (89%) deliver a high level of accurate search results. The relevancy of search results was also strong, reaching 4.38 with 5 being the most relevant.

In addition, 80% of sites offer shoppers real-time inventory status, and 75% suggest related products on merchandise pages and in shopping carts.

"Internet retailers have fine-tuned e-commerce sites to garner their share of back-to-school revenues,” Freedman says. “Online merchants are investing to make it easier, faster and more convenient for customers to shop their web sites." She notes that the overall time to shop on the sites dropped to 3.24 minutes from 4.08 minutes in the fourth quarter of last year.

The study also notes:
-- Merchandising strategies improved, as traditional techniques like “Top Sellers” were fine-tuned and positioned on more pages with additional information on price and other characteristics to entice shoppers;
-- 96% of the sites offer discounts through special sales, 28% offer coupons and 32% provide an online outlet store;
-- 40% of sites offer product comparisons, up from 23% in the fourth quarter, while 60% offer how-to guides, up from 58%;
-- To profile customers, 40% use interactive tools, up from 30% in Q4, and 88% send targeted e-mail, up from 83%, but more sites, 77%, emphasize consumer privacy by sending e-mail with opt-in options, up from 61%;
-- 84% offered gift certificates, up from 78%;
-- 96% featured their privacy policies on their home page;
-- 48% of sites were easy for new customers to navigate, up from 34%;
-- 53% ship USPS ground to save on shipping costs, up from 33%. While all sites e-mail order confirmations, 50% include up-sell offers in the confirmations, up from 29%, and 75% promote other services, up from 39%.

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