The Undercover Online Chocolate Shopper

This weekend is your virtual last chance to use the Web to send chocolates in time for Valentine’s Day.

Because there’s quite a variety of chocolate shops on the Net, the E-Commerce Times has taken a bite out of the issue for you, testing both the sites and the sweets. Romantic consumers and e-tailers alike can take to heart what we’ve learned from our undercover investigation.

From poorly designed sites and missed deliveries to personalized customer service and special touches, online shopping for Valentine’s Day was representative of the e-commerce holiday experience.

Before we get to what we loved about e-commerce thisValentine’s Day, let’s look at a pair of chocolate sites that we initially liked but eventually left without making a commitment.

Won’t Be Our Valentine

At Leonidas Chocolates, the front page tells potential customers in big, bold letters that before they can shop, they need to download a Flash 4 plug-in from Macromedia. After getting past the threshold test (by reading the fine print and finding the click-through), we were dismayed to discover that the site was featuring chocolates for Christmas, New Year’s or Easter, and quickly moved on.

Hans Burie, another Belgium-based brick-and-click chocolatier, did have a Valentine’s page, but unfortunately the site also had get-stuck navigation.

The product names and photos looked a lot like links but were only blue-underlined product names and blue-outlined photos. We had to use the Back button to return to the front page, where we selected “Order Form.”

On the Order Form page, there’s a nice picture, but no order form. If you scroll down and click on “Catalog,” you get a picture, but no catalog. If you click on “Main Page,” you go back to the very same Catalog page where you already were and — well, you get the picture.

Easy Bake … NOT

So we decided to take Easy Street, and we headed over to Yahoo! Stores, where Chocolates by Bernard Callebaut offers chocolates in an edible chocolate heart-shaped box.

Sending your beloved — or better half — a medium-sized chocolate heart from Callebaut runs US$20.00, plus $16.00 for overnight shipping. We were pleased to find an option on the page that asked us for the “latest possible date your order can arrive at its destination.”

We requested overnight delivery on February 5th and then typed in February 7th as the deadline. Yet, as of late on the 7th, we had no chocolate from Bernard Callebaut.

Sour Taste

Unfortunately, calling the phone number on the site sent us into a customer service meltdown. After being handed off to “my wife” by the man answering the phone, our undercover shopper explained that we had placed an overnight chocolate order that never came.

The woman, who later identified herself asBarbara, demanded our order number. We politely told her that we had no order number, even though we had printed out every page of the order form we filled out.

“It’s in the upper right-hand corner,” Barbara yelled angrily, and things went downhill from there. Barbara ranted that there were really two company Web sites, and we had ordered from the site that sends the orders off to Canada.

Bad Date

After determining that the chocolate did not go to Canada, but rather that the online order was sent there because of the two Web sites problem, we asked Barbara if the order was going to arrive by the 7th as originally requested. She then rudely dismissed us by saying she was sure it was being sent “today.”

We explained that it was supposed to arrive on the 7th, not be shipped on the 7th. At that point, Barbara, who was unable to find our order either electronically or on paper, demanded our phone number — the very phone number we had carefully typed into the Web-based order form at Yahoo! Shopping in two places.

Barbara later called back, apologized for the missed delivery and said the order would be sent via overnight a day late, but with free shipping.

Like Web for Chocolate?

Luckily, we had also placed an order with the well-recognized queen of chocolates: Godiva.

Godiva proved an online customer service maven as well. The order we placed was immediately followed by a form e-mail acknowledgement that promised a specific confirmation e-mail within 24 hours. That confirmation came a few hours later.

On the correct delivery date, Godiva sent an e-mail with the FedEx tracking number for the package that was already en route. That e-mail had a direct link to the FedEx tracking page, which offered every possible detail about our package as it traveled from the warehouse in Maryland to the FedEx center in Indiana — even the precise time our chocolate got put on the delivery truck in California.

When the chocolate arrived at noon, it was beautifully packaged with the note we had written ourselves, and delicious in a way that can’t be described with words like insouciant bouquet and breathtakingly zesty.

The Sweet Lowdown

At Chocosphere, we liked the bigValentine’s basket, but not the price of $67.50, so we took advantage of theopportunity to build our own smaller basket for $37.50.

The order pages on the site include a Comments box where consumers can putin their special requests. We asked for all the goodies listed in the bigbasket, but at the small basket price, including Max Brenner’s “The Kiss”and a green heart-shaped box of Cafe-Tasse.

The company sent us aconfirmation e-mail and delivered exactly what we ordered before 10 a.m. thenext day.

Out of the Box

To be sure, there were a few chocolate stones left unturned by our undercover operative. If your heart, your appetite and your wallet are big enough, the DeBrand Fine Chocolates site offers 8 pounds of chocolate for $300 plus shipping.

If you’re looking for a gift that shows “out-of-the-box” thinking, try a chocolate cell phone in see-through wrapping from The Chocolate Vault for $9.95, plus $6.35 shipping.

But whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of believing that Mom-and-Pop shops on the Web offer more romance and personal service than the corporate giants of e-commerce.

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