Byline: Valerie Seckler

NEW YORK — The Internet’s multichannel halo seems to be slipping.
Sure, plenty of people flocked to fashion Web sites to buy apparel online for holiday — and the click-and-mortars generally garnered more traffic than their pure-play cousins. But the much ballyhooed multichannel crowd left a sizable portion of those consumers dissatisfied in some manner.
Most broadly, e-shoppers scoping style griped that they experienced “frustration, unmet expectations and dissatisfaction” when executing a gift certificate transaction for fashion goods; had trouble finding or using an apparel site’s return policy, and were unhappy with the way clothing was merchandised on the Web.
The bottom line: Customer service will tell much of the tale for apparel e-tailers in 2001.
“E-tailers have measured traffic and usage in the past,” noted Angela K. Selden, managing partner of the retail practice at management and technology consultant Accenture. “However, the how and why of what customers feel [about Web sites] gives e-tailers new opportunities to take customer service to the next level.
“As the Internet increasingly becomes a tool for information retrieval as well as for shopping, the halo effect of established brands will fade from the multichannel players,” Selden forecast in an interview with WWD.
“A bad online experience could affect consumers’ perception of a company’s stores — its service, its assortment,” she added. “We are likely to see some erosion of store businesses associated with poor apparel Web sites.”
A batch of new Net data on holiday 2000, based on two studies, one conducted by Accenture and Vividence, and the other by Nielsen/NetRatings and Harris Interactive, shows:
82 percent of e-shoppers seeking apparel were able to complete a gift certificate transaction on the Net, but 20 to 60 percent had some kind of difficulty doing so, depending on the site they visited.
13 percent found it “very difficult” to find and buy an apparel gift item.
Nearly one-third of online fashion consumers were unable to easily find a company’s return policy on a specific site, and once they did, only 66 percent were comfortable with it.
Pure-plays outperformed the click-and-mortars during December when it came to satisfying customers with the overall shopping experience on the Internet.
Perhaps most surprisingly, nearly one-third, or 30 percent, of cybershoppers canvassed for the eHoliday 2000 Apparel Report Card issued by Accenture and Vividence complained they had a negative experience shopping a specific apparel Web site for holiday — and 22 percent said they were unlikely to return to those sites.
“Consumers expect to have the same experience whether shopping online or off-line,” Selden observed. “With the functional improvements e-tailers achieved in 2000, customer service now becomes the lynchpin for the year ahead. The drive to spin off Internet units has disaggregated [multichannel] retailers’ information on their customers and merchandise. That condition can no longer exist,” she counseled, “and it will be rectified in 2001.”
The Apparel Report Card canvassed more than 750 people shopping on 14 apparel sites, including department stores, specialty shops, and mass chains with a Web presence. The survey was conducted by marketing consultant Vividence and the results were analyzed by Accenture. Selden declined to identify the sites in the sample, but she said those players produce combined sales of more than $300 billion online and off, and most of them have “globally recognized” nameplates. The e-shoppers were asked for qualitative, as well as quantitative information, she noted, such as why they spent a certain amount of time on a site: Was it because they liked shopping it, or were busy reading content, or was it due to difficulty finding an item, getting a query answered, or transacting a purchase?
There’s a lot at stake, in any event. Online sales transacted in the U.S. totaled $7.2 billion in December, with 13 percent of the country’s population, or 36 million people making a purchase on the ‘Net, according to an eCommerce Pulse survey taken by Nielsen/Net Ratings and Harris Interactive.
For the click-and-mortar crowd, the stakes are especially high, as for every dollar spent online in December, an additional $1.97 was spent off-line, the eCommerce Pulse study found.
“One must not be too quick to discount the full benefit of e-commerce initiatives,” said Lari Iventosch-James, director of e-commerce research at Internet marketing consultant Harris Interactive. “For every dollar spent online, nearly two dollars were spent off-line, underscoring the enormous benefit of the Internet for brick-and-mortar retailers.”
Much like the Apparel Report Card, the eCommerce Pulse portrayed an Internet environment that brought click-and-mortar e-tailers the largest spikes in traffic during December, but one in which people also preferred their shopping experience at pure-play sites. Seven of the top 10 sites, ranked by customer satisfaction, were pure plays, with Amazon topping the chart. The Web’s leading e-tailer scored a customer satisfaction rating of 8.5 on a scale of one to 10, compared with an average satisfaction level of 7.77 across the 264 sites that were analyzed. The trio of click-and-mortars making the top 10 were Barnes&, placing fifth;, eighth, and, ninth.
Also ranking relatively high among the multichannel crew, coming in at 16th through 20th respectively, were,,,, and Kmart’s
“While brick-and-mortar companies have been able to achieve huge growth by bringing their off-line customer online, they are also introducing many customers to online purchasing for the first time,” observed Sean Kaldor, vice president of eCommerce of NetRatings Inc.
“By comparison,” he added, “Internet pure plays have a more established online customer base, one that is more comfortable with the online buying process.”

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