E-Retailing Still Stinks

I had a friend once whose insight on personal relations and prejudgment was that "stereotypes exist because stereotypes exist." Pretty intolerant, really, but he was right in one sense. I know too many slimy lawyers, boring accountants and programmers who can't communicate with biological organisms to really question the validity of some stereotypes.

But one stereotype that I thought had gone away is, in fact, as real as it ever was. Retailers still generally stink at e-commerce.

Oh, they've come a long way, no doubt. Almost everyone now has a Web site and is willing, however grudgingly, to sell stuff through it. But if you're hoping the Web will take the edge off the stress during the holiday shopping season - or hoping your own Web site will enchant customers and help you build market share - the odds are seriously against you.

In a recent study, Giga Information Group Inc. found that two-thirds of the 200 major sites it studied didn't supply action links that would let users easily buy or get more information about a product, 60% didn't provide links to a privacy policy from the home page and 43% were missing basic aids like navigation bars and links to the home page.

Things like that are simple, and they're easy to overlook, but they're vital to the usability of the site. Giga didn't find even one site that had all the navigation aids it considered standard.

That's bad news, especially since an online retail analysis from BizRate Inc. that came out last week predicted that holiday shopping season sales will top $12 billion for the quarter - more than double last year's total.

The same report describes online customers as fairly loyal, buying about two-thirds of all their online purchases from one merchant.

How do you grab those customers? An AT&T Corp. survey of 150 online retailers showed - and other studies agree - that customers aren't looking for the most whiz-bang site. They don't necessarily want to buy using small-screen, awkward smart phones or handhelds; they don't want the jazziest graphics or JavaScripts; they don't want the most personalized, community-oriented, customer-responsive site in the world.

They want to use the Web, and they want it to be easy and predictable, just like at a store.

They want to know that you keep their data private.

They want to know that you'll deliver on time.

They want to easily get to a copy of your privacy policy and know that you're sticking to it.

They want a confirmation that says you received an order, states when the order will arrive and contains a tracking number that they can use to find out what's happening to the order.

They want to be able to find out more about a product than what you put on the screen the first time they see it.

They want to be able to search for what they want without having to wade through screens of extraneous marketing information that you think is important.

They want a phone number on the site that they can find easily.

They want to talk to someone who can answer their questions and, if necessary, order the product for them.

They don't want a generic site with a shopping cart, an e-mail address for customer service and a help desk staff that knows little more than they do.

That's the stereotype of the bricks-and-clicks retailer (and the dot-coms, for that matter), but it's not the reality consumers are willing to put up with anymore.

So if you want a bigger piece of that $12 billion this holiday season, forget the flourishes, at least for now. Just make sure you've covered the basics.

Kevin Fogarty is Computerworld's features editor. Contact him at kevin_fogarty@computerworld.com.

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