March 12, 2009, 12:00 AM removes phone number from its site, relies on live chat cut costs to help it live up to its promise to match the lowest price online for appliance parts and accessories. It also replies to e-mail inquiries from the site within 10 minutes during business hours.

Appliance Zone LLC is all about offering low prices on appliance parts and accessories. That’s why it removed the toll-free phone number from its web site last month and relies on live chat and e-mail to handle customer inquiries, says Jim Allen, CEO.

The fast-growing online retailer was adding employees to keep up with phone calls, and finding the average call tied up an agent for four to six minutes, Allen says. The fastest agents can handle 12 to 15 text chats at a time, he says. “Reps cover a lot more ground with live chat,” he says.

“It was kind of a risky move taking down the phone numbers,” Allen observed early this month, “but we did have a record week last week, which was our third week of doing this. We have not had too much negative feedback. We still have people who want to talk to a person on the other end. We assure them it’s a real person talking to them on the other end through chat.”

Appliance Zone uses the BoldChat live chat system from Bravestorm LLC, and also the vendor’s BoldMail e-mail management system. The retailer has created a simple form on its web site so that customers who know the model and serial number of the part they need can e-mail an inquiry and get a fast reply.

“Within the hours of 8 a.m. and midnight a rep will get back to them within 10 minutes, or they can use the chat feature, which we push as the No. 1 way of communicating,” Allen says. The retailer is receiving between 4,000 and 5,000 e-mails a day, he says.

Allen believes customers recognize that eliminating live phone agents is a money-saving move that helps back up its guarantee to offer the lowest price on the web for the parts it stocks. It’s so confident of its prices that it features a Price Checker on its site that allows customers to instantly compare’s price with that of several online competitors.

The e-retailer, which now has 19 employees, keeps costs low by fulfilling all domestic orders through drop-ship relationships with 70 suppliers, which means it doesn’t have to buy and warehouse inventory. Allen believes the low-cost strategy suits the times, as he says more cash-strapped consumers appear to be ordering parts and repairing appliances themselves rather than calling a repairman.

Allen says the e-retailer’s sales have doubled in the last four months since it launched, an enhanced version of the company’s original site, He says the company is selling $750,000 a month online and expects that monthly total to hit $1 million by midyear.

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