January 27, 2004, 12:00 AM

E-mail response times spike, shopping time shrinks, says study of 100 sites

In spite of the buckets of attention that online customer service gets, response time to e-mail inquiries in the most recent mystery shopping survey of 100 web sites by The E-Tailing Group deteriorated by an astounding 33% from a year earlier.

In spite of the buckets of attention that online customer service gets, response time to e-mail inquiries in the most recent mystery shopping survey of 100 web sites by consultants The E-Tailing Group Inc. deteriorated by an astounding 33% from a year earlier.

The 100 retailers in the survey took an average of 25 hours to respond to an e-mail inquiry, 6.25 hours longer than they took a year ago. "We advise merchants to carefully evaluate the degree to which they are automating web site customer service,” says Lauren Freedman, president of The E-Tailing Group. “Although self-service may appear to deliver customer convenience while containing operating costs, ultimately the customer and your brand may suffer. Therefore, short and long term brand considerations must be weighed to ensure customer satisfaction."

The leader in responding to an e-mail inquiry from The E-Tailing Group’s survey was RedEnvelope.com, which replied in 8 minutes.

The total time to shop a site from logging on to the home page through finding a product and checking out was 3.67 minutes, slightly below last year’s 4.08 minutes. The process took only 3 minutes at JCPenney.com, LandsEnd.com, MensWearhouse.com, Orvis.com and Petco.com, the study reports.

Clicks to checkout averaged 4.6 vs. 4.9 a year ago. Customers check out in two clicks at MensWearhouse.com and in three clicks at JCPenney.com and RedEnvelope.com.

The average time to receive an order was 4.4 days, with the fastest orders arriving in two days from CompUSA.com, LandsEnd.com and Perco.com. No one matched last year’s three sites that delivered in one day.

The E-Tailing Group eliminated merchants if they did not possess what the group believes are "must have" features, in the following order of importance:
1. Ability to complete shopping process on 1st attempt
2. 800# or other toll-free number
3. Answer e-mail question correctly, within 24 hours, with personalized response
4. Five or fewer days to receive package
5. Five or fewer minutes to shop
6. Six or fewer clicks to checkout
7. Real time inventory in shopping cart or product page
8. Online shipping status
9. Order confirmation in shopping cart
10. E-mail order confirmation sent with order # included

Based on those criteria, The E-Tailing Group says the best online merchants of the 100 it studied are (in alphabetical order):
Ann Taylor
CompUSA
Crate & Barrel
Crutchfield
JC Penney
J. Crew
Lands` End
Men`s Wearhouse
Orvis
Petco
Powell`s
RedEnvelope

" Whereas in 4Q 2002 merchants were focused on better editing and execution of core customer service functionality, this year convenience and ease of shopping were paramount. Every one of our top sites provided real-time inventory, online shipping status and order confirmation numbers in the shopping cart as well as in subsequent e-mails,” Freedman says.

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