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L.L. Bean hit its online stride when it mattered most.

The privately held retailer, based in Freeport, Maine, scored highest among a sample of more than 100 e-tailers based in the U.S. for online service in December, repeating its chart-topping performance from November.

Research conducted by StellaService, the monitor of online service satisfaction, placed llbean.com at the top of its rankings for December, ahead of home furnishings specialist wayfair.com, net-a-porter.com, ralphlauren.com and fifth-place finisher fab.com.

The remainder of the top 10 consisted of shop.lululemon.com, jcrew.com, barneys.com, sierratradingpost.com and surlatable.com.

L.L. Bean also led all other merchants in the category of e-mail response, as it did in November, according to StellaService, which bases its research on orders placed and follow-up activity by its own employees. E-mails received replies in less than an hour, on average, compared to an average of more than 16 hours for apparel and accessories retailers as a group.

In addition to heading the StellaService monthly benchmark findings for two months in a row, Bean has made the top 10 for all nine months that Stella has disclosed its findings.

“They’ve managed to instill a true culture of service within their seasonal workforce,” said Kevon Hills, director of research at StellaService. “Their team deserves a lot of credit for staffing appropriately and providing fantastic training for those employees. It’s certainly evident in our data.”

Among apparel and accessories merchants, ralphlauren.com scored best in phone service, followed by net-a-porter.com and llbean.com, while jcrew.com and modcloth.com were second and third, respectively, in e-mail service behind Bean. Gap.com drew top ratings for shipping, followed by gilt.com and ae.com, American Eagle Outfitters Inc.’s Web site. Toryburch.com topped the ratings in returns, followed by Bean and Net-a-porter.

Among department stores, barneys.com led the phone and shipping categories, while nordstrom.com and macys.com excelled in e-mail and returns, respectively.

Following barneys.com in the shipping category were jcpenney.com, saksfifthavenue.com, macys.com and neimanmarcus.com.

Separately this week, Kurt Salmon, which will work with StellaService on an analysis of online fulfillment to be released in the first quarter, reported that the bulk of delays in deliveries of holiday merchandise were the fault of retailers, not shipping companies like UPS and Federal Express that bore the brunt of consumer ire about late deliveries.

Kurt Salmon analyzed more than 175 online orders placed on the last day for which retailers guaranteed delivery by Christmas and found that 15 percent of those orders didn’t reach their destinations on time.

The retailers were responsible for 56 percent of delays, covering about 8 percent of shipments overall, versus 44 percent in which the shippers bore responsibility. In two of every five cases for which the retailer was at fault, a failure to upgrade shipping caused the delay. In 27 percent of cases, goods were shipped too late versus 20 percent in which merchants used a nonguaranteed shipping method. The remaining 13 percent of late arrivals were traced to retailers’ inventory issues.

Kurt Salmon singled out five Web sites — zappos.com, coach.com, belk.com, underarmour.com and sears.com — for their success in delivering orders placed on the latest ship dates.

Debbie Fortnum, senior vice president of supply chain at Belk Inc., noted that the abbreviated holiday season, with one less week between Thanksgiving and Christmas than last year, pressured merchants.
“But we were ready,” she said. “We developed an integrated shipping plan, including volume expectations and timing, with our carrier partners that aligned with our promotional schedule. Our priority was delivering on our promise to shoppers, so careful preparation and coordination were key.”

Al Sambar, partner and director of the soft lines practice at Kurt Salmon, suggested a number of steps retailers could take to improve on this year’s disappointing performance, including the alignment of promotional and distribution activity so that distribution centers are set up for heavy late demand created by last-minute discounts and incentives. He also noted that, despite the great demands pressing on physical stores during holiday, brick-and-mortar stores can be used to ship to customers, as stores like Macy’s have started to do. In many cases, stores are in closer proximity to customers than distribution or fulfillment centers might be.

“It’s a fiercely competitive time of year, but there is a big gap between being good and being great when it comes to fulfillment,” Sambar said. “Some brands were stunned by last-minute demand and they simply don’t have the systems in place to respond in time.”