January 19, 2001, 12:00 AM

When It Comes To Internet Retailing, Catalogers Have Their Creative Juices Flowing

A new study reveals that traditional mail-order catalog sellers are using creative forms of online support to improve e-commerce experience and address growing competition. With Web-based catalog sales taking a significant share of the e-commerce retail market, many catalog sellers are realizing the importance of providing strong online customer support. Lands' End and Victoria's Secret tied for the number one spot in the survey, which rated 10 of the most popular U.S. online catalog sellers.

     The study evaluated Internet customer service capabilities ranging from accessibility to product information and shopping assistance. The competitors surveyed also included Eddie Bauer, REI, LL Bean, Patagonia, JC Penney, JCrew, Bugle Boy, and Tweeds. Sponsored by Octane Software, the study is part of an ongoing project by students in the telecommunications and e-commerce program at Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management.

     Of the categories studied, Lands' End outscored the competition in the "Industry-specific Support" category with its imaginative use of online guides/assistants. While many sites contained basic apparel size information, Lands' End, along with a few other Web merchants, provided customers with interactive tools that help them decide what to buy.

     Unique to the Lands' End site was its personal model tool, which allows customers to build their own online model by inputting personal height, hair color and size information. This feature allows customers to "try on" a variety of clothing, helping them feel more comfortable with their purchase decisions in an attempt to increase customer satisfaction and reduce product return rates.

     Lands' End also topped the list with Eddie Bauer for providing strong site navigational capabilities such as site maps and search functions, minimizing the time customers spend looking for particular products.

     In the "General Support" category, Victoria's Secret led the race among the catalog sellers with excellent online help and easy-to-access customer service pages containing FAQ's and hyperlink lists.

     The study revealed that most of the catalog sellers had little or no online help facilities, a standard requirement in online selling where customers expect immediate results to prevent them from wandering to the competition.

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