By  on December 30, 2008

Top-volume Web sites generally are failing to meet the expectations of America’s consumers.

That’s the underlying message from the annual Top 40 Online Retail Satisfaction Index study conducted by ForeSee Results and FGI Research. The firms surveyed 9,000 visitors to the nation’s 40 largest-volume Web sites.

Amazon and Netflix were rated the highest overall. L.L. Bean and Victoria’s Secret fared the best among apparel retailers.

Circuit City, Gap, The Home Depot, HSN, Neiman Marcus and Overstock got low ratings.

Web visitors were asked how satisfied they were with the overall site experience, regardless of whether they made a purchase. They also were asked to rate the site based on merchandise availability, variety, pricing and appeal; functionality, and whether they would recommend the site and return to it.

The responses were collected by FGI Research’s Smart Panel and the patented and predictive methodology of the University of Michigan’s American Customer Satisfaction Index was used to evaluate the retail Web sites’ ability to encourage loyalty and purchase intent. The Web sites are rated on a 100-point scale.

“In a recession, knowing that improving customer satisfaction with your Web site can engender that kind of loyalty and purchase intent is like money in the bank,” said Larry Freed, president and chief executive officer of ForeSee Results, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based firm that measures and monitors online customer satisfaction to help companies increase sales and loyalty.

“But too many e-tailers are ignoring this crucial metric, and it shows in the results of our study. Only two of the 40 measured e-tailers scored above 80, and more than a quarter scored 70 or below. Nearly 40 percent saw satisfaction drop year-over-year. That’s just not playing to win in this economy.”

Amazon and Netflix both scored 84, and this past weekend, Amazon said it had its best holiday season ever, while most Web sites had disappointing ones. “Amazon is setting the bar for online retail satisfaction and sales, and I expect they will have better financial results than the rest,” Freed said.

According to ForeSee, only 10 of the 40 Web sites improved shopper satisfaction this year. The most improved were Wal-Mart, HP’s online store, Staples and Target.

About two dozen Web sites saw satisfaction declines year-over-year, with the biggest drops seen at HSN and Gap.

“Consumers were expecting big discounts this season, and price was a pretty important factor, but it’s not the be-all, end-all for satisfaction, even in a recession,” said Freed. “It’s much smarter for the long term to improve satisfaction through Web experience improvements than erode brand equity through price cuts. The travails of Detroit’s Big Three automakers illustrate that point profoundly.”

Freed said Gap Inc.’s new feature enabling consumers to use one cart to purchase products from all three of its brands — Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy — hurt the company’s positioning by drawing comparisons between brands. “It was a mistake. I don’t think it’s helping them in terms of perception.” But Freed acknowledged that customer satisfaction with the merchandise is another issue at Gap Inc.

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