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SAN FRANCISCO (01/31/2000) - If You Buy It Online, Will It Come?

"You know how TO take the reservation," Jerry tells the rental-car clerk in a memorable Seinfeld episode. "You just don't know how to hold the reservation."

Sure enough, something similar (although less comical) is happening online.

With the explosion of e-commerce, there are plenty of online retailers who know how to take your order, just not many who know how to fill your order.

Last Christmas season was a festival of e-commerce botches. And I speak from experience: My niece and nephew in New York didn't get the presents my wife had ordered from EToys until after the holiday. What showed up on time were gifts for a November baby shower in North Carolina. My wife did get three e-mails confirming that the order had been shipped, but not mentioning that it was the wrong one.

Come to think of it, the e-commerce companies aren't so hot at taking your order, either. On a busy pre-Christmas evening, several sites managed to garble my shopping carts and spit me back to square one, where I had to reenter all the information I'd just typed in. Nordstrom's site was so confusing that I ended up using the phone--and connecting with a courteous, knowledgeable salesperson who completed the transaction in less than 5 minutes.

In my lifetime, the retail world has continuously moved toward self-service, which amounts to replacing an employee's labor with your own. I remember local grocery stores that took orders by phone and brought them to your door, sometimes on credit. Supermarkets wiped them out with lower labor costs and economies of scale. With e-tailing, your fingers on the keys do the work of salespeople on the showroom floor, at a cash register, or over a toll-free line.

Fine, when it works. But e-tailers of all stripes need to follow some basic guidelines if they're going to get my business:

Accurate stocking and delivery information: Lines like "usually ships in two to three business days" generally mean "not in stock, but we can probably get it pretty quickly." That's not good enough for us. The retailer's computer should be linked to the wholesaler's or transshipper's, so that you can find out exactly what will happen, and when.

Up-front totals: Every system should tally the total charges, including shipping, as you shop--and before you submit your billing information.

Clear access to customer service: I'm talking about a big button clearly marked "customer service." Click it while placing your order to learn about things like return policies. Click it later and get the status of your order. And when you have problems that a computer can't solve, click it again to get help from a human.

Low-price guarantee: Many retailers with printed catalogs, especially those in the computer business, offer only their highest prices online. Often customers can get better prices by picking up the phone and asking a clerk to match the competition. So why not save labor costs and make that best deal available in the first place?

Automatic deals: Don't make me look for some coupon buried on the site. Program your checkout system so that customers automatically get any special offers they are entitled to. The loyalty of delighted consumers will more than compensate for the few dollars lost.

Spam relief: Don't hide the check box for opting out of e-mail solicitations at the bottom of the screen. And don't fill it in by default. Better still, offer some immediate incentive for surrendering our e-mail addresses--like a one-time discount, not the vague promise of future deals.

Follow-through: Do what you promise, no excuses. If a shipment will be late, explain the problem in detail and offer me the opportunity to cancel. If you demand an e-mail address, then use it to inform, not just to sell.

And don't get me started on incomprehensible return policies, poor search engines, inadequate product pictures and descriptions, or fields that let you type in free-form data--only to spit it back at you for not entering it the right way. Other Web options are just a click away, the phone is nearby, and the mall's not far. This country offers plenty of ways to buy stuff.

Incompetent e-tailers will learn that in a hurry.

PC World Contributing Editor Stephen Manes is cohost of Digital Duo, a series appearing on Public Television stations nationwide. For program information, see www.digitalduo.com.

E-tailers of all stripes need to follow some basic guidelines if they're going to get my business.

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