E-tailers Streamline Strategies After Holiday Snafus

While vigorous holiday traffic and subsequent respectable sales figures are encouraging, smart e-tailers with an eye toward longevity are taking a second look at their marketing and sales strategies.

Many e-tailers are realizing that the honeymoon period of trial and error in online sales is over. Shoppers have made their priorities known and have become proficient at navigating the territory, meaning that sites that failed extensively during the holiday season are expected to hemorrhage customers in 2000.

Now, as e-commerce looks to the coming year, how to avoid the same snafus in the future will become the subject of great speculation among analysts and business owners.

So, just what has been learned over these past few weeks of increased online activity?

Convergence is King

Convergence may become the critical buzzword, as businesses realize that traditional stores and e-tail Web sites are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The shopper who bought apparel from gap.com and finds that he or she can return it to The Gap store at the local mall is apt to shop the site again.

The mix of traditional retailing with new media has spawned a number of creative possibilities for future cooperative ventures. Consider Clixnmortar.com, a Chicago, Illinois-based firm that specializes in creating an online presence for traditional retailers. Simon, the largest shopping mall company in the U.S., created the service and plans to start wiring all 176 of its malls in the coming year for fast Internet access.

Some of the possibilities include online gift registry services for offline stores, multimedia kiosks in the malls, and in-store promotions that direct shoppers to Web sites for special promotions that are available exclusively online.

Access to Information

Concise, easily accessible product information may be key to closing a sale. According to results of a newly released survey from the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA), it is not just infrastructure and fulfillment problems that are challenging e-tailers. The survey found that 17 percent of survey respondents needed additional information about a product while shopping online.

Three-quarters of these customers found answers on FAQ pages, but 20 percent never found the necessary information at all. In all cases, customers who cannot find answers are likely to abandon the purchase.

Interactivity

Online interactivity has emerged as key to customer satisfaction, as shoppers seem most comfortable when offered an opportunity to communicate with the e-tailer. Lands’ End realized this fact early on, and accordingly allowed its customers to shop on its Web site while simultaneously speaking with a customer service agent by telephone. The customer service representative can send product images to the customer’s computer screen.

What doesn’t work? Customers seem most dissatisfied with companies that only offer e-mail as the sole communication vehicle, especially when the e-tailer takes several days to respond.

E-tailers Battle the Clock

Most customer complaints seem to center on the time it takes to make the purchase, receive a response from customer service, or to receive the products that have been ordered. In the coming year, the e-tailers that survive will likely be those that streamline their sites for fast, easy navigation and that can ensure rapid or — in some cases — same-day delivery.

Ultimately, in an industry whose calling card is convenience, minutes and hours may soon spell the difference between success and failure.

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