January 16, 2002, 12:00 AM

Online buying finally equals brick and mortar experience, says Answerthink

Answerthink’s third annual Holiday Web Shopping study finds major improvement in retail web sites’ content and customer service.

Online shopping is doing a better job of mirroring the in-store shopping experience, according to the third annual Holiday Web Shopping study just released by Miami-based technology consultants Answerthink Inc. In a study that rated and compared 200 retail web sites on functionality, fulfillment, and customer service, Answerthink found that content, in a variety of forms, was the big area of improvement across a large proportion of the sites in the past year.

Product descriptions were more robust, search was improved and more sites offered shopping tools. 88% of the sites studied, for example, provided detailed information about their products versus only 50% of sites that did so last year, while 73% of the sites studied offered advanced search, up from 59% last year. The sites also boosted customer service levels, with 93% offering multiple shipping options, for example, up from 71% last year, and 95% offering comprehensive FAQ or help pages, up from last year’s 68%.

The survey found that despite the improvements, many retailers still don’t personalize their sites to individual shoppers. Only 30% to 50% provided personalized product recommendations or “my page” features. And although interactive chat was more frequent in 2001 than a year earlier, most retailers still are relying on FAQ or help pages to carry most of the load on customer queries.

Interestingly, 93% of the retailers surveyed now present a consistent shopping experience on the web and the other channels in which they operate. Web sites tended to offer the same merchandise for the same price as offered in the catalog or store. “True multi-channel marketing may lag a bit until store systems catch up with the web and catalog’s inherent advantage of having customers identify themselves,” says Ken Goldberg, managing director of Answerthink’s Retail Solutions Group. "But it will happen, and customers will opt in to receive the benefits associated with loyalty.”

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