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The number of online shoppers continues to grow, but more slowly than online sales. The annual growth rate in the number of U.S. web shoppers will be 3.6% from 2009-2015, says research firm eMarketer, while the U.S. Commerce Department says web retail sales grew 15% last year. That means more of the buying is done by consumers who have shopped the web before—and who expect every e-commerce site to be as efficient and easy to shop as the very best ones.
Regardless of the size of a retailer or the type of product they are buying, these savvy online consumers want to receive their purchases fast, and they want options in terms of how they get it and what they pay. Amazon is considered the gold standard for fast order processing and delivery, and the features that Amazon and other top e-retailers offer put pressure on small and mid-size web retailers to keep up, says Michael Kleinman, president of MK Consulting Inc. and former president of underwear retailer Fresh Pair Inc.
“Customer expectations have changed,” Kleinman says. “If the shopping experience is at all cumbersome or unpleasant, you will not have repeat customers. It needs to be seamless.”
With thousands of new web stores emerging every year, no niche is safe. If a customer is steps away from buying a product on a retailer’s site and she notices something missing—a 30-day return policy, real-time inventory, an order online/pickup in store option—there is nothing stopping her from checking out a competitor’s site.
“With so many competitors, we feel the constant need to keep up,” says Joe Yakuel, president of fireplace and lawn & garden products retailer FireForLess.com. “We offer daily inventory management and we update it as often as we can, but this year we’ll be moving to real-time inventory.”
Yakuel hopes that the switch to providing up-to-date stock information will reduce cancellation rates and put consumers’ minds at ease. FireForLess.com uses vendor-licensed software that allows for in-house modifications and greater flexibility without paying a per-order fee. Running a lower-margin business, he says, keeping costs low is just as important as being able to customize order management technology.
Seth Newman, president of Envelopes.com, says that no matter how big a retailer is or how safe and reliable they claim to be, customers are always uncertain when it comes to buying online. “People never know exactly when they’re going to get their order,” he says. “Amazon’s customer confidence is remarkable, and their recent actions are game-changers,” Newman says, pointing to initiatives such as Amazon Prime, the $79-a-year service that affords subscribers free two-day shipping on all Amazon.com orders. “Everyone is striving for that level of confidence.
Newman says that his business has come a long way in the last year. 95% of orders placed on his site, he says, are shipped on the same day they are ordered. While he lists speed as the top priority of his customers, some of them businesses ordering envelopes and stationery and others consumers buying invitations for weddings and other events, he says fraud and real-time address correction are two of his biggest order management worries.
Every time a customer incorrectly enters a shipping address, he says, the company’s shipping carrier charges him five dollars to fix it. These changes can be anything from the suite or apartment number not being formatted correctly to the ZIP code not matching up with the city. They can add up to quite a financial burden on a web retailer of any size. For this reason, a priority this year for Envelopes.com will be deploying software that alerts customers to any formatting errors in shipping addresses before they complete their purchases.
“Customers expect their address to be fixed for them,” says Kleinman of MK Consulting. “They expect return shipping to be free, depending on the product. They expect a same-day shipping option. Small retailers need real-time inventory on their site. If they don’t have it, someone else will.”
“The bottom line,” Kleinman says, “is buying online needs to be easier.”