Byline: Valerie Seckler

NEW YORK — Shopper, shopper off the mall, what’s the fairest Web site of all?
According to the “1999 Holiday E-Commerce Survey,” conducted by Credit Suisse First Boston, Internet sites wooing shoppers with the most compelling visual presentations include Wet Seal’s blueasphalt.com; nordstrom.com, and jcrew.com, while some of the broadest assortments can be found on sites mounted by traditional mall anchors and catalogers, as well as Amazon.com.
C.S. First Boston’s survey, conducted by shopping 60 Web sites on the Friday after Thanksgiving, also assessed the speed at which various e-commerce players were able to transact holiday business, and the range of shipping costs they charged.
The investment bank found the widest range of goods on sites such as macys.com, bloomingdales.com, nordstrom.com and jcrew.com — and also cited them for “highly impressive” visuals — as well as on eddiebauer.com; landsend.com, llbean.com and Amazon.com.
Internet players tagged for the narrowest product offer, among those surveyed, were radioshack.com, costco.com, and pure-play.com, while zale.com, yankeecandle.com, and officemax.com were described as displaying the “weakest” visual presentations.
Commenting on zale.com’s citation for weak visuals, Beryl Raff, president and chief executive officer of Zale Corp., said, “It is a subjective issue. Our objective is to be visually pleasant, but at the same time, to be easy to use, and to edit the assortment enough to avoid confusing the customer.”
Zale offers roughly 1,500 items online, she said, compared with between 2,000 and 2,300 pieces in its stores.
“Enhancing the Web site is an ongoing process, and we had a Nov. 1 deadline for any changes we would make this year,” Raff noted. “Now we have a laundry list of ideas to make the site more pleasant, clearer and more fun to use, beginning Jan. 1.
“We believe a defining factor online this season will be the ease of shopping experience,” Raff added. “We feel our navigation is relatively easy and straightforward.” C.S. First Boston evaluated the e-commerce players on “Black Friday” — one of the year’s heaviest shopping days — for the first study in a three-part effort it has planned to assess the e-commerce experience this season.
The first portion, summarized in a report dated Dec. 2, evaluated the process of purchasing merchandise on 48 sites operated by click-and-mortar companies, and 12 pure dot-coms. Variables considered included the speed at which orders were executed, the overall quality of the sites and their ease of use and specific shopping and service features.
Five products were selected for the test purchases, including a woman’s sweater, Pokemon Yellow software for Gameboy, a portable CD player, a coffee maker and a SnakeLight flashlight.
“This holiday season has been seen as being particularly important in the development of e-commerce, owing to industry observers’ belief that the first mover will have the advantage,” stated the report, produced by a team of five analysts, led by Richard Baum.
They were referring to the notion that the longer traditional companies wait to initiate e-commerce, the more difficult it will become for them to achieve success, let alone dominance, online. Standing in their way, observers reason, will be the rapidly increasing number of dot-coms and explosive growth of those pure Net players, which are better positioned to quickly build the customer base and scale necessary to turn a profit in cyberspace.
While Costco’s site ranked low in breadth of assortment, it was judged to be among the fastest in completing transactions, as were those operated by Abercrombie & Fitch, Amazon and Ace Toys. The slowest, C.S. First Boston found, were the ones run by Wal-Mart, Sears, Talbots and toy merchant KB Kids.
“Sears was upgrading its site for most of the day — adding more products, according to a customer service representative, who advised us to try back later,” the study stated. “The greatest degree of difficulty was experienced at wal-mart.com. High site traffic caused extended delays that resulted in one 48-minute transaction time and also an incomplete order.”
Pokemon Yellow software for Gameboy was advertised in Wal-Mart’s holiday electronics circular for online purchase, but was unavailable on the company’s site, the bank reported. After 48 minutes, including a series of error messages and reloads, Pokemon Blue software was successfully ordered.
An unsuccessful attempt to buy a coffee maker at wal-mart.com lasted one hour. According to C.S. First Boston, Wal-Mart’s customer service reps said they could not process the order via telephone, either, due to “complications.”
A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said Wednesday, “The day after Thanksgiving has always been a very busy one at Wal-Mart’s traditional stores, and this year was no exception at the stores, and online. I can’t give any reasons for the difficulty on the Web site, other than the high customer traffic that day.”
The spokeswoman added that Wal-Mart is planning to relaunch its Web site on Jan. 1.
A Sears spokeswoman acknowledged that sears.com was “under construction” on Black Friday so that some new elements could be tested over Thanksgiving weekend, early in the holiday shopping season. She said those features include “an entirely new look,” the ability to apply for credit online, the capacity to send stored-value cards as gifts and the expansion of the Tool Territory department from Sears’ proprietary Craftsman brand to an offer of 60 labels.
C.S. Boston’s holiday survey further noted three failed attempt to process orders at jcpenney.com, and reported, “Customer service was contacted and they were unable to comment on the complications.”
On Wednesday, however, Richard E. Last, executive vice president of J.C. Penney Internet commerce solutions, speculated that the troubles were probably due to a surge in customer traffic. “We had a 60 percent increase that Friday, over the Friday before,” Last stated.
“We have upped our projections for Penney’s online volume this year to $90 million from earlier estimates of $70 million,” Last noted. Full-year sales of that magnitude would mark a sixfold leap over sales that tallied $15 million at jcpenney.com in 1998. “We believe we’re heading for a 40 percent increase in sales online, this week, versus last,” he added.
Last attributed the robust growth this holiday to the expansion of the online shopping population as well as to getting Penney’s holiday assortment online in mid-October.
As for shipping costs online, C.S. First Boston found that the sites of click-and-mortar retailers charged “significantly more” for shipping than pure Net players, with an average of $5.70 per order, compared with the $3.10 required, on average, by the dot-coms.
Online transaction times and ease of use were generally better at the pure Net players than at sites manned by click-and-mortar companies, according to the investment bank’s survey. C.S. First Boston’s shoppers spent an average of 11.6 minutes at pure dot-com sites, compared with 12.9 minutes on those run by traditional stores.
The second part of C.S. First Boston’s survey will analyze the fulfillment and delivery process, or what goods were received, and when. All items are to be sent to the same offices in New York City.
The bank is projecting that this phase of the e-commerce process will be as important, and possibly more important, than the nature of the sites themselves. Results of this effort are expected to be published this month.
The survey’s final phase, to be completed in January, will seek to discover how quickly and accurately returns are processed. The survey team, led by analyst Richard Baum, concluded, “We believe that many in the e-commerce community have not yet realized that the flow of merchandise to the consumer will not be solely one way.”

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