Retailers’ websites are hopeless

Britains’s retailers should scrap their existing internet sites and start again, according to a damning report on the standard of customer service that online shoppers receive.

Order confirmations, return policies, receipts and telephone helplines are all missing from sites operated by established high street retailers, according to a survey by Shelley Taylor & Associates, Web consultant, clients of which include Charles Schwab, McDonald’s and Procter & Gamble.

Return to Sender, to be published this Friday , will document how simple or otherwise it is to shop online, using 30 UK and 70 US websites. “We were astonished to find that some of the UK’s hottest online retailers have yet to adopt the rudimentary customer-service practices of their bricks-and-mortar counterparts,”says Taylor. This is not about a lack of technical expertise, but a real lack of retail thinking. Retailers should stop worrying about visual imagery and start making sure the content is there”.

A survey published last week by Verdict, the retail consultancy, examining comsumers’ views on the home-delivery services offered by a range of organisations from catalogue companies to online retailers, also concluded that the standard of internet retailing in the UK was poor.

Only one-third of the UK sites tested by Shelley Taylor & Associates confirm that an online order has been logged and just 13% allow customers to monitor the progress of an order online. Nearly a fifth of British shops dispatch items without any enclosures or receipts and 20% do not include return address details for goods to be sent back. On a more positive note, 27% offer free return shipping or pickup, against just 14% of the US stores studied.

By putting technical experts rather than retail specialists in charge of designing and operating consumer websites, stores are failing to adhere to the most basic principles of customer service.

“Consumers are not interested in technology,” argues Taylor. “When we tried to return items we consistently came up against red tape, rude people and nebulous return policies.

“Instead of trying to evolve these sites, British retailers should simply start again.”

JJB Sports is named as the worst of the websites tested over four weeks during March. The site has dedicated customer-service link and it does not send any e-mail confirmation of purchase or shipping. Navigation around the site is difficult and the item ordered took eight days to arrive.

“We have been through a few teething problems,” admits a JJB spokesman.

The site, which aims for a 24-hour delivery period but only contacts shoppers if a product is out of stock, is due to be relaunched at the end of this year.

Tesco’s, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer’s and Freemans’ sites each rejected at least three separate attempts to purchase goods online. In some cases the company’s Web server was not working, but in the majority of instances a stream of error messages frustrated efforts to place an order.

Boots is among five retailers singled out for particular criticism. Nearly two weeks after placing and receiving online confirmation of an order, the shopper called the helpline to check the progress of the purchase, only to be told that no such order existed.

Another product was duly ordered, which, to date – nine days later – has still not arrived.

“It’s not good enough,” admits a representative for Boots. “It could be that there was just a glitch on the site.”, the Victoria Wine site, also comes under fire. The bottle of wine ordered was hand-delivered in a bag with no receipt and contact information.

After finding the customer helpline number from the website, it took five calls to establish that the company accepts no returns unless the item is damaged.

ChateauOnline, another internet wine retailer, delivered its bottle in a cardboard box with no receipt and no name on the box – an unfortunate oversight given that the address belonged to a busy office.

The report is also critical of Argos, the catalogue shopping company. The item ordered arrived with no receipt or return instructions and calls to establish a returns policy at first went unanswered. Finally, in what the tester describes as a rude exhange, the company admitted there is a £3.90 pick-up charge.

“We’re very sorry,” says an Argos spokesman. “Our online help section should give assistance with orders and deliver.”

Video and DVD retailer BlackStar, which has a clear returns policy and a facility for tracking the progress of an order online, is nominated as the best UK site.

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