February 19, 2008, 12:00 AM

E-commerce takes top spot in cross-industry customer satisfaction survey

E-commerce—including online retail, travel and brokerage—scored 81.6 out of 100 in the American Consumer Satisfaction Index, far ahead of the 74.9 average of all industries. Amazon.com had the second-highest score of more than 200 companies surveyed.

Online retailers went to the head of the class in the latest American Consumer Satisfaction Index survey from the University of Michigan. But with consumers expecting ever-better performance from web sites, e-retailers should not get complacent, warns Larry Freed, CEO of web-measurement firm ForeSee Results, which owns the patent to the ACSI technology for gauging customer satisfaction.

The e-commerce industry-which the survey defines as online retail, travel and brokerage-had the highest score of the 40 industries covered, 81.6 out of 100, a 2% jump from its score in the 2006 survey. The average of all industries was 74.9, down 0.4% from the year before.

“The improvement in e-commerce is impressive, given the downward trend in the national ACSI,” says Claes Fornell, who heads up the ACSI at the University of Michigan. “E-commerce is the only sector to improve this quarter, and in fact reaches an all-time high in customer satisfaction while some other industries start to struggle.” E-commerce is included in the ACSI’s fourth quarter survey each year.

Within the e-commerce sector, online retail had the highest grade, 83, which was unchanged from 2006. Amazon.com had the highest score among e-retailers, 88, which was second only to food manufacturer Heinz among the more than 200 companies measured by the survey. Online computer retailer Newegg was second in the online retail category at 87, followed by video rental service Netflix at 84.

The survey this year moved eBay into the online retail category because a growing number of items are sold on eBay at fixed prices rather than at auction. EBay scored 81, up from 80 last year. Overstock.com also was included for the first time in this year’s survey, and scored 80, the lowest of the five e-retailers that the survey specifically asked consumers about. While 80 is a respectable score, Freed of Foresee Results says Overstock.com’s score likely suffers from the uncertain selection that comes from its model of selling surplus merchandise.

The survey also tracked customer satisfaction with other online merchants mentioned by consumers, and they as a group scored 84, “indicating that even smaller players have stepped up to meet rigorous industry standards,” Freed says.

The online retail category only included retailers that sell exclusively on the Internet. Multi-channel retailers like Wal-Mart, Staples and Best Buy were included in the Retail Trade category, which scored 74.2, down slightly from 74.4 last year.

Despite the stellar showing of online retailers, Freed says they can’t rest on their laurels. He says consumers’ expectations of retail sites go up as they encounter new innovations at travel, entertainment and other web venues. “As things change across the Internet,” he says, “that sets a new standard that customers are looking for.”

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