What Online Shoppers Expect - Today
To turn Internet surfers into buyers, Web merchants must provide high-tech order tracking and multiple sales channels - not just a good product line, analysts say.
Consumers are a demanding bunch. And as technology gets exponentially better and cheaper over time, online shoppers are wanting better and cheaper access to what they are looking for.
"As the Internet becomes more mainstream, many users are not early-adopters," Forrester Research senior analyst Paul Sonderegger told the E-Commerce Times. "Some are downright hostile towards technology and care about finding the perfect rug, not about bells and whistles."
According to Sonderegger and other analysts, e-tailers need to understand that because they are competing stores that are so easily accessible to online consumers, merely offering satisfactory products and service is not enough.
Consequently, e-tailers must respond to the rising bar of customer expectations -- or face obsolescence, analysts argue.
Emerging as a standard with which e-tailers must comply in order to meet basic consumer expectations is what Gartner Group research director Geri Spieler simply calls "shopability."
"It is a lot easier to click out of a store than to walk out of a mall," Spieler told the E-Commerce Times. "We are not going to spend much time [at an online store] if we cannot get to [what we need] in two to three clicks."
To please today's typical online shopper, the consensus among analysts is that e-tailers must provide complete order status access, fulfillment consistency, multiple sales channels, wide product selection and intuitive Web design.
Where's My Stuff?
Precise and timely information on order status is a must, said Spieler.
"An order should be followed with a tracking number, a verification of the order placed, and continued visibility into the order process until the order is delivered," Spieler wrote in a recent report.
Indeed, Amazon spokesperson Bill Curry told the E-Commerce Times, "Where's my stuff?" is the most common question that the Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN) customer service group receives.
The company responded with online package tracking, highlighted throughout the site with the moniker, "Where's My Stuff?"
Not only do consumers want to track their orders, they want them to consistently show up on their doorsteps, observers say.
"Fulfillment is the end game," said Spieler. "If you don't get what you ordered, there is no sale, profit, revenue or business."
First soured by the fulfillment nightmares of the 1999 holiday season, online shoppers will no longer tolerate delivery mishaps, she added.
Real-time inventory systems that allow retailers to check availability and reserve orders would dramatically improve online fulfillment, suggested Spieler, but fewer than 5 percent of e-tailers have such systems in place.
Online stores should also buttress their Web sites with other sales channels - like brick-and-mortar, catalog and telephone - to accommodate the full spectrum of consumer needs, industry observers agree.
Indeed, 46 percent of online buyers research online to purchase offline, while 27 percent research offline to buy online and 17 percent research in both ways, according to Forrester Research.
Traditional retailers like Kmart (NYSE: KM) are integrating sales and marketing efforts with their online arms, while e-tailers like Amazon are hard at work linking with brick-and-mortar partners like Circuit City (NYSE: CC), Target (NYSE: TGT) and Borders (NYSE: BGP).
"We constantly receive calls from customers who enjoy the benefits of our strong ties with Kmart," BlueLight.com vice president of customer care Lori Gagnon told the E-Commerce Times. "That includes returning products they purchased online in stores, shopping on BlueLight.com-kiosks in Kmart stores, and viewing the Kmart [sales newsletter] online."
E-tailers are also dealing with customers' increasing demand for vast and varied product selection, said Forrester's Sonderegger in a recent report.
BlueLight customers, for instance, often ask for the complete lines of products online that they see in Kmart stores, said Gagnon.
Lastly, intuitive design and user interface contribute significantly to an e-tailer's shoppability, analysts said.
E-tailers can no longer afford to make basic user interface and design mistakes, said Sonderegger, citing Virgin Atlantic's use of red text on a red background.
"Intuitive means familiar and consistent," said Sonderegger. "We should recognize a navigational object, like a button, and this should be consistent (throughout a site)."
Added Spieler: "Helpful signposts on each page should direct the customer to customer service and previous pages."
Amazon and other frontrunners tend to give consumers the first tastes of what is possible on the Web, said Sonderegger. As leaders, they set the pace of innovation.
"We have put a lot of effort into raising expectations," said Amazon's Curry. "We hope we are raising the bar for other companies."
After using features like 1-Click ordering and the ability to combine asynchronous orders to reduce shipping costs, Amazon's customers have come to expect similar options at other e-tail stores.
Dose of Reality
While shoppers and other e-tailers should indeed keep an eye on the latest advances in technology and service, they should acknowledge that the true leaders will always be one or two steps ahead, suggested Sonderegger.
"We should look at the fast-followers for the subset of functionality that will become the de facto standard," he said.