Profile of the Perfect E-Commerce Customer

There is probably no such thing as a bad e-commerce customer. But which ones are the best, the most likely to take an e-tailer into the promised land of perpetual profits?

According to analysts, the perfect customer is an ever-moving target. Once, e-tailers thrived by catering to young male customers who bought every new technological gadget and computer accessory as soon as it hit the market.

Times are changing. The perfect customer now is just as likely to be an older female with almost no interest in DVDs, scanners or digital cameras.

But finding and holding on to top customers is still a challenge because, by nature, Web shoppers seem to be less loyal and more willing to spread their spending among various sites. In other words, the perfect consumer is as hard to find and retain as he or she is to define.

Bargains Talk

“E-commerce benefits from bargain shoppers; they really drove buying in 2001,” Lori Iventosch-James, director of e-commerce research at Harris Interactive, told the E-Commerce Times. “The main reason a lot of consumers turn to the Web is that they perceive it as a place where they can compare prices easily and find bargains. By definition, that means less loyalty.”

Because price is such a concern for the new breed of online shoppers, they are far less likely to be loyal to any given e-tailer. And while customer acquisition costs have declined considerably from the high-flying days when e-tailers spent lavishly to attract eyeballs, such costs are still a major concern for companies that are more focused than ever on the bottom line.

“E-tailers have to figure out a way to whittle down prices enough to keep customers but still stay profitable,” Iventosch-James said. “They want to attract customers without giving away the store to do it. That’s not an easy task.”

Money To Spend

Of course, e-tailers also want to attract and retain customers who are going to spend more money. But they must work harder to corral those affluent shoppers.

Affluent buyers may be especially important in a slowing economic environment because they are least likely to curtail their consumption of the types of discretionary items the Web features, according to Forrester Research analyst Christopher Kelley.

Forrester has identified affluent consumers as a key online constituency that “set the pace for e-commerce adoption” by being among the first to buy items — including big-ticket items — online. Still, sites that attempt to cater to this group often have forgotten the basics of customer service.

In the end, the perfect customer may be any customer who is happy enough with the shopping experience to return and to refer friends.

“Customers who come back are the best ones to have,” Kelley told the E-Commerce Times. “There is no price tag you can put on loyalty.”

Talk the Talk

While affluent customers and those who shop regularly are clearly sought after, other factors also help define the perfect customer. For instance, anyone who spreads a positive message about a site is as good as gold, said Bruce Weinberg, a professor of marketing at Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts.

“Every site on the Web now needs that kind of viral marketing more than ever,” Weinberg told the E-Commerce Times. “Unfortunately, a lot of companies spent thousands acquiring a customer and then treated them badly.”

Weinberg knows firsthand about poor online customer service. Starting in September of 1999, he spent a year doing all his shopping on the Web, chronicling the effort in an online journal.

“Unfortunately, right now a lot of sites still aren’t that good,” Weinberg said. “But those that make customers happy make friends for life and really benefit when those customers start spreading the word to their friends. It’s not just cocktail parties and the water cooler now. Thanks to e-mail, they can tell people around the world where to shop.”

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