Santa's little hinderers

Well, I tried. I really did. I was willing to invest the time, twiddle my thumbs while pages loaded, fill my cart and pony up the dough. Problem is, too many online retailers still aren't willing to spend the time, and lack the common sense, necessary to get the customer experience right.

This remains true despite the barrage of uplifting holiday online shopping postmortems. Yes, more people than ever holiday-shopped online. 15 percent more than during last year's fourth quarter, according to researchers such as comScore Networks Inc. and Pew Internet & American Life Project. But that's only 1 percent to 2 percent of overall retail sales. Most sales still take place in traditional stores, in part because it remains too hard in many cases to spend online, forcing would-be buyers to instead surf and then drive.

Presumably, online merchants want customers to explore their sites the more pages they click and the longer they stay, the more likely they are to fill up their shopping carts. This is a good thing. But not at sites like PotteryBarn.com, which proudly times out shopping carts "every 30 minutes." Or SmithandHawken.com, which takes great sport in sneaking up on unsuspecting shoppers and wiping out all traces of their fully loaded shopping carts. And StonewallKitchen.com won't handle more than five different addresses in a single order. Who needs positive cash flow and satisfied customers when you can ignite Web rage?

It's foolish to penalize anyone interested enough to spend an hour or more actually clicking through several categories of products. Treating shoppers like loiterers is a good way to guarantee short visits and canceled sales.

The problem is compounded by useless customer service. When shoppers run into problems online, they want answers and soon. A Jupiter Media Metrix study released last week found that the number of sites that respond within two days has actually fallen, and as many as one-third take longer than three days or don't respond at all.

Despite our growing patronage of online shopping, analysts say Web retailers still lack adequate staff and technology, such as software that can help automate routing and responding to e-mail. This is folly. To capitalize on this growing wave of interest, invest today in your online business to improve the customer experience.

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