Press Releases

Ten Merchants Meet the e-tailing group’s Criteria for Online Customer Service Excellence

For Immediate Release:
January 20, 2010

Speed, Efficiency, Effectiveness, Accessibility, and Customer Control Make the Mark but Merchants Face Trade-offs based on Logistical and Infrastructure Choices

Results of the e-tailing group’s 12th Annual Mystery Shopping Study, conducted during 4Q ’09, recognize ten merchants out of the 100 benchmarked for excelling at online customer service. “These merchants clearly went beyond the call of duty to fulfill customer expectations.  Notably three of the ten who met our criteria were also recognized last year (Brooks Brothers, Crutchfield, and Lands’ End). We believe service should be the differential that defines best-in-class retailing and as such we will continue to reward stellar merchants for exceptional performance. We congratulate them all,” expressed Lauren Freedman, President of the e-tailing group.

Top Performing B2C Sites for Online Customer Service in 2009

(Alphabetical order)

Blue Nile MoMA
Brooks Brothers Lands’ End
Coach REI
Crutchfield Saks Fifth Avenue
Green Mountain Zappos

Methodology and Benchmarking Criteria

To qualify as “top performing” each of the 100 merchants was ranked using benchmarking criteria extrapolated directly from results of the survey. The top merchants for online customer service were revealed via a process whereby sites were systematically eliminated for not possessing “must have” criteria in the following order of importance:

  1. Keyword search
  2. Four or fewer days to receive package
  3. Adequately and correctly answer e-mail question within 24 hours; providing a specific (rather than automated) answer
  4. On-site home page accessibility of toll-free phone number 2.0 or higher on a scale of 3.0
  5. CSR product knowledge when calling toll-free# 2.0 or higher on a scale of 3.0
  6. Five or fewer clicks to checkout
  7. Email shipping confirmation sent
  8. Email order confirmation sent with order number and customer service information included
  9. Real-time inventory in shopping cart or on product page

Four metrics from the survey are charted here to demonstrate the exemplary performance of these top sites for customer service versus the average of the 100 sites shopped.

Merchant # of hours

to respond to email

CSR Knowledge

(1-3, 3 = Very Knowledgeable)

# of clicks from selection of product through checkout

Business days to receive Item

Blue Nile 0.22 2.0 5.0 3.0
Brooks Brothers 3.07 3.0 5.0 3.0
Coach 2.48 2.0 4.0 3.0
Crutchfield 1.27 3.0 5.0 3.0
Green Mountain 19.73 3.0 5.0 3.
MoMA 20.48 2.0 4.0 4.0
Lands’ End 6.52 2.5 4.0 3.0
REI 0.37 2.0 5.0 3.0
Saks Fifth Avenue 0.88 3.0 5.0 4.0
Zappos 0.98 3.0 3.0 1.0
Average of EG100 sites shopped with these features 20.69 2.24 5.42 4.05

In Their Quest to Deliver Excellent Customer Service, Merchants Must Consider How Their Choices Impact Overall Business Models

“Analysis of 125 customer service metrics revealed trade-offs that merchants face based on logistical or infrastructure choices and challenges,” observed Freedman. “The merchant thought-process has far-reaching cross-channel implications that must be considered as each decides how to deliver five essential elements – Speed, Efficiency, Effectiveness, Accessibility, and Customer Control.”

1. Speed

Merchants upped the ante on faster deliveries resulting in fewer days for orders to reach customers (4.05 in ‘09 vs. 4.76 in ‘08) which continues to impact the desire for consumers to shop at retail for urgent and immediate needs when orders placed at night are delivered the next business day. Positively this turns first time buyers into loyal customers and influencers. Unfortunately the cost to maintain such a delivery standard may only be possible for the largest merchants making competing more difficult for others. While 14 out of the EG100 merchants delivered in two days, four provided expedient delivery in one day without extra shipping fees: Amazon, Office Depot, RedEnvelope and Zappos.

2. Efficiency

This is an area where merchants are wisely investing and accordingly several new metrics were added to this study which will be important for merchant benchmarking going forward. Among those to watch are: Pre-populated customer information in the shopping cart (89%), single cart checkout from multiple merchants under one umbrella brand (50%), and the ability to reorder from order history (10%).

Year-over-year increased penetration was observed for fast buy/direct to cart buying from multiple site locations (62% vs. 39%). Expanded tracking included pages where this could be initiated which was most often the cart (69%) followed by the category page (63%). Mini carts/perpetual shopping carts also added to site efficiency on 92% of the EG100 vs. 77% last year as did pop-up/mouse-over-carts resulting in full cart displays (39% vs. 30%).

Little downside is apparent from these efficiency-oriented initiatives except for merchant investment in required software and more sophisticated data management programs to assure that the information provided is accurate. A tradeoff for greater site browsing could be considered a downside but we believe the efficiency element far outweighs additional unfocused time spent on the site.

As more merchants try to minimize the profits lost when merchandise is returned, they are tightening return policies and making them more restrictive as evidenced by shorter return times and fewer merchants offering unconditional, money-back guarantee.

3. Effectiveness

In order to be effective merchants must stand behind their products, giving the customers the confidence to buy and accordingly 57% did offer product guarantees, 60% of which were wisely merchandised (both new metrics introduced this year). However, these guarantees could be stronger with dedicated placement on the customer service pages and in the shopping cart to be truly meaningful.

Timely and accurate email communication is essential to effective customer service so year-over -year it was disappointing to find merchants taking slightly longer to respond (20.69 minutes vs. 20.15). When a response was received it was less likely to have a personalized salutation (75% vs. 82%) and fewer gave correct answers (72% vs. 77%). The obvious implication here is that while automation can be expedient, the resulting impersonal tone and risk of poor information are formidable. Most importantly, merchants are missing an opportune moment to connect with current and prospective customers.

Call center performance was also less effective this year with longer wait times. Off-setting this situation, more sites provided click-to-chat (38% vs. 32%) and overall chat times were shorter but service declined (1.7 vs. 2.5 on a 3-point scale with 3 equaling best). These substandard experiences were likely the result of staff reductions and/or reduced training funds. We caution merchants to closely monitor such decisions as their short-term savings may not be judicious in the long-term.

4. Accessibility

Cost cutting efforts appear to have decreased the amount of essential information and tools that are “always available” or shown at timely points throughout the shopping experience. Just 78% of the surveyed sites provided FAQs vs. 84% last year, and the presence of real-time inventory dropped to 88% from 91% in ‘08. Unfortunately without these features customers cannot self-manage their shopping experiences as easily which may ultimately increase call center and email CSR load-demand.

Post-purchase, 7% fewer than last year (68%% vs. 75%) provided a customer service phone number within their e-mail order confirmations.  When this critical information is unavailable, it is a major frustration for most online shoppers and sends a message that the merchant does not wish to be bothered with individual concerns.

5. Customer Control

As referenced above, empowering customers so that they can self-manage elements inherent in the online shopping process is a viable merchant option for cost containment. Accordingly requiring membership was a factor on 24% of sites vs. 16% last year. A new self-service metric, found 32% providing the ability to move items or an entire cart to a wish list.

Payment plans are another way of giving customers control, an option which accounts for the increased penetration of deferred payment (47% vs. 40%) as well as PayPal (34% vs. 23%).

Post-order, customers can also share their thoughts as evidenced by two more new metrics: post-order targeted email to review/rate a purchase (22%) and post-order targeted email surveys (26%).

In summary

“The caveats to such customer service initiatives are that they be skillfully implemented, extremely accessible, creatively promoted, and cautiously managed with an eye toward what really nets out as cost containment without negatively impacting the customer experience. They should be effective for the customer yet bottom-line oriented for the merchants,” emphasized Freedman.

Findings from the complete 12th Annual Mystery Shopping Study will be summarized in a report which will be available to purchase and download in early February. Copies may be pre-ordered for $395 via PayPal today.

About the e-tailing group, inc.
The e-tailing group, inc. serves as the multi-channel merchant’s eye, bringing a merchant’s sensibility to evolving the multi-channel shopping experience. A Chicago-based consultancy, they provide practical strategic perspectives and actionable merchandising solutions to merchants selling online as well as to enabling technology firms.

For more background about this research study, including a list of merchants surveyed or for additional information on the e-tailing group, inc. please contact Lauren Freedman at or visit the e-tailing group website

Sites Shopped

the e-tailing 100 4Q09

1-800 Flowers Clinique giggle New Egg Sony Style
Aeropostale Coach Godiva Nordstrom Staples Golfsmith Office Depot Sundance
American Girl Crate & Barrel Green Mountain Orvis Target
Apple Crutchfield Harry & David Overstock The Avenue
Armani Exchange HP Home & Home Office PetSmart The Children’s Place
Aveda Dick’s Sporting Goods HSN Polo The Container Store
Bare Necessities Discovery Channel iRobot Pottery Barn The Home Depot
Barnes & Noble Drs Foster & Smith J. Crew QVC Things Remembered
Bass Pro JCPenney RadioShack Toys ‘R Us
Bath & Body Works King Arthur Flour RedEnvelope Under Armour
Bed Bath & Beyond EBGames Kohl’s REI Urban Outfitters
Best Buy eToys L.L. Bean Road Runner Sports Victoria’s Secret
Blue Nile Famous Footwear Lamps Plus Saks Fifth Avenue Vitamin Shoppe
Bluefly Forever 21 Lancome USA Sears Walgreen’s
Borders Frontgate Lands’ End Sephora Wal-Mart
Brooks Brothers Gaiam Lego Shop NBC Williams-Sonoma
Brookstone Gap Lowes Shop PBS Gardener’s Supply Macy’s Sketchers Zales
Cabela’s Garnet Hill MoMA Solutions Zappos

the e-tailing 100 4Q08

1-800 Flowers Cabela’s GNC Lowes Sephora Circuit City Godiva Lucy Shop NBC
American Girl Coach Golfsmith Macy’s Shop NFL
Ann Taylor Gymboree Martha Stewart Crafts Shop PBS
Apple Crate & Barrel H20 Plus MoMA Solutions
Armani Exchange Crutchfield Harry & David Neiman Marcus Sony Style
Baby Center Dell Hickory Farms Nine West Staples
Bare Necessities Dick’s Sporting Goods Home Depot Nordstrom Sundance
Barnes & Noble Discovery Channel HP Home and Home Office Office Depot Target
Bath & Body Works Drs Foster & Smith HSN Orvis The Avenue
Bed Bath & Beyond Igourmet Overstock The Container Store
Best Buy J. Crew PetSmart Tiffany & Co.
Bliss World eToys JCPenney Polo Toys ‘R Us
Blue Nile Famous Footwear L.L. Bean Pottery Barn Victoria’s Secret
Bluefly FAO Schwartz Lamps Plus QVC Vitamin Shoppe
Borders Fossil Lancome USA RedEnvelope Walgreen’s
Brooks Brothers Frontgate Lands’ End REI Wal-Mart
Brookstone Gap Lego Road Runner Sports Williams-Sonoma
Brylane Home Gardener’s Supply Levi’s Saks Fifth Avenue Garnet Hill Liz Claiborne Sears Zappos

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