January 13, 2009, 12:00 AM

Online customer service slips at a time when it’s more important than ever

The E-Tailing Group’s Mystery Shopping Study finds only nine of 100 sites surveyed meet all the research firm’s criteria for excellent customer service.

Nine of 100 e-retail sites benchmarked by The E-Tailing Group’s 11th Annual Mystery Shopping study met all of the consulting group’s criteria for online customer service. The rest have room for improvement, suggesting that customer service standards are slipping on too many sites at a time when it’s a more important differentiator than ever, says E-Tailing Group president Lauren Freedman.

The E-Tailing Group identified nine features defining excellent online customer service. Those features ranged from having a toll-free phone number on the site to being able to deliver packages in four days or less to offering real-time inventory availability. The nine sites possessing all of the features were retailers BabyCenter, Bluefly, Brooks Brothers, Brookstone, Crutchfield, Goldsmith, HPShopping, Lands’ End and Wal-Mart.

The study found declines in a number of areas of customer service among the other sites surveyed. Among them, fewer sites offered 24 hour-a-day customer service this year than last year – 27% compared to 39%. Additionally, the average number of business days it takes for consumers to receive packages also is up at 4.76 days this year compared to 4.18 days last year. And fewer merchants this year than last year – 84% compared to 95% –are sending e-mail shipping confirmations, something Freedman believes all retailers should offer, especially as many merchants are opting for longer delivery times to reduce shipping costs.

“With Holiday ’08 e-commerce sales down 3% and online sales growth prospects flat, the channel is at a crossroads,” she says. “It’s a matter of survival of the fittest among merchants. Delivering best-in-class service will be an important differential and every customer interaction needs to be a positive one.”

The nine sites meeting all of the study’s criteria for customer service belonged to retailers BabyCenter LLC, No. 239 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide to Retail Web Sites; Bluefly Inc., No. 128; Brooks Brothers, No. 286; Brookstone Inc., No. 131; Crutchfield Corp., No. 104; Golfsmith, No. 214; HP Home & Home Office Store, No. 5; and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., No. 14. Lands’ End is part of Sears Inc. No. 8

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