January 31, 2008, 12:00 AM

11 online merchants get perfect score in mystery shopping survey

Eleven of the 100 online retailers surveyed in The E-Tailing Group`s 10 th Annual Mystery Shopping Study offer all 12 shopping features researched in the study, including a toll-free phone number on the home page, keyword site search and correct answers to customer e-mail questions within 25 hours.

Eleven online merchants went 12 for 12 in offering key customer service features in The E-Tailing Group’s 10th Annual Mystery Shopping Study of 100 leading e-commerce sites.

Those 11 e-retailers offer all 12 of the features the researchers looked for. Those features include a toll-free telephone number on the home page, keyword search functionality, correct answers to e-mail questions within 25 hours, delivery within four days, six or fewer clicks to complete checkout, and real-time inventory status in the shopping cart or on a product page.

Top-rated sites also had to display shipping status and provide order confirmation in the shopping cart. They also had to supply e-mail order confirmation, recommend products during the shopping process, display customer service hours and show holiday shopping deadlines. The 11 sites that had it all were: BlueNile.com, ContainerStore.com, Crutchfield.com, DiscoveryStore.com, Fossil.com, Golfsmith.com, Landsend.com, Polo.com, PotteryBarn.com, REI.com and Zappos.com.

“Through this year’s study we clearly saw a divide between merchants that just provide baseline service and those that truly have a customer service culture,” says Lauren Freedman, The E-Tailing Group president. “Great service leads to loyalty, and those merchants who make it the differentiator will profit from their investments.”

Where’s the number?

Four other sites fell short by one feature: their toll-free numbers were not clearly visible on the home page. “This is a perfect example of a simple-to-execute, customer-centric feature that builds trust and decreases site abandonment,” Freedman says.

The study found some features becoming increasingly common. For instance, 83% of sites had comprehensive FAQs, up from 74% in the 2006 study. A shopping cart that shows a running total of a customer’s selections is available on 72% of the sites, up from 55% the prior year. 74% of the merchants now display pictures of items in the cart.

Timely post-order communication is the norm, with 95% of e-retailers confirming orders immediately on site, a dip from the previous year’s 100%, and 95% e-mailing shipping confirmation, up from 88%. Call center agents seem more knowledgeable, with 87% answering questions correctly versus 75% in 2006.

Alternative payments

Use of alternative payment methods is growing. Deferred payment is an option on 37% of the sites versus 35% the previous year. Google Checkout availability grew to 12% from 7% in the previous study. PayPal, which was not tracked previously, was an option on 22% of the sites in the latest study.

32% of the sites offer live help versus 29% the previous year, and click-to-call functionality grew dramatically to 16% of the sites reviewed versus 3% the previous year. Back-in-stock alerts showed up on 7% of the sites. That’s a newer idea that could produce added sales, Freedman says.

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