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SIDEBAR: WHICH WEB SITES CAN CONSUMERS TRUST?
Katie Evans, an avid online shopper, hadn't heard of MayKool.com, but it was offering a nice dress for half of what similar-seeming items cost on other sites. A senior editor at Internet Retailer, she knew enough to check online for complaints about the site. Not seeing any, she bought the dress in February, and MayKool promised delivery in four weeks.
When it hadn't arrived five weeks later, she e-mailed an inquiry. "so sorry for the delay, because Chinese new year some of our order need to delay, and this dress is so hot," read the e-mail reply. By now, Evans figured out that MayKool was based in China. When the dress arrived two weeks later it was far too small and of poor quality. Evans didn't bother trying to figure out how to send it back to China.
The problem she encountered is becoming more common: E-retailers from anywhere—China, the United States or anywhere else—can reach consumers around the world. But consumers have no authoritative place to go to check an e-retailer's reputation, except for the largest e-commerce sites.
Had Evans been buying a car she might have referred to the automotive ratings of J.D. Power and Associates; for a refrigerator she could check Consumer Reports. Both offer ratings of e-retailers, based on consumer surveys, but only of a relatively few big companies. StellaService Inc. rates more companies, but only on their customer service. Here's a summary of what these three companies offer consumers:
- J.D. Power issued reports last year rating online retailers in four categories: general merchandise, shoes, flowers and apparel. The reports covered a total of 40 retailers. The reports it periodically issues on industries like e-retail are based on smaller surveys than its exhaustive automotive study, a spokesman says.
- Consumer Reports issued a report last year ranking 52 e-commerce sites that enough of its readers mentioned in survey responses to constitute a valid sample. A spokesman says the organization would include more retailers in the future if more e-retailers generate enough mentions, but only if it decides to repeat the survey.
- StellaService measures thousands of e-retailers, says Ty McMahan, director of content, who did not provide an exact number. The company focuses on customer service, for example, testing how long it takes a retailer to respond to an e-mail or process a return. Consumers can access the company's ratings at StellaService.com/consumer.
While StellaService rates the most e-retailers, it does not have ratings on MayKool.com or any of the Chinese retailers mentioned in the accompanying story. For now, consumers like Evans are on their own in deciding whether to trust these sites.