Based on the sales figures, consumers are increasingly content to turn to the web to get their holiday shopping done. Judging by survey data and heaping anecdotal evidence, however, we’re increasingly dissatisfied with online shopping in general.
By most accounts, it was a terrific holiday season for e-commerce. Online sales on Cyber Monday increased by 17% over last year, and e-retail sales shot up even more sharply on Thanksgiving and Black Friday. Overall, e-commerce purchases were up around 15% for the season, and, according to comScore, at least 12 days during the season surpassed the $1 billion mark for online sales.
What’s more, December 25 may have come and gone, but we’re still in the thick of the holiday shopping season, thanks to post-Christmas and post-New Year’s sales—and especially thanks to the increased popularity of gift cards. “Between gift cards and the lure of more discounts, the holiday season now goes into the middle of January at minimum,” Paula Rosenblum, managing partner of Retail Systems Research, told InternetRetailer.com. “The consumer is looking for a deal and retailers have inventory to get rid of. It makes for an active period.”
Yet as more consumers turn to online shopping before and after the holidays, more critics are voicing their dissatisfaction with e-retail. The biggest argument in favor of online shopping is that it eliminates the hassle of having to go to a store, but still, online shopping is hardly without hassles.
Perhaps the most public critique of online shopping appeared in a New York Times op-ed just before Christmas. In it, the author and screenwriter Delia Ephron wrote of her experience purchasing and shipping holiday gifts from J. Crew. The piece’s title – “The Hell of Online Shopping” – reveals that the experience didn’t go so well.
Among the problems: Purchased items were shipped to the wrong people; presents that were supposed to be gift-wrapped never were; cards alerting the recipients where the goods came from were buried deep inside packages or weren’t included at all; and, of course, clearing up these matters with customer service was a maddening, time-consuming process. Among the larger problems that Ephron, and surely many others, have with online shopping is this:
Ordering Christmas presents on the Web, regardless of the dubious ease, has obliterated the idea that there should be some grace to a present, some beauty, and that the receiver should experience it. Instead it’s become as mundane and problematic as all our Web purchases, which in my family include paper towels and toilet paper.
Complaints about online shopping aren’t limited to obvious cases in which orders were screwed up, or to the idea that one-click shopping eliminates some of the magic of the season of giving. In its annual Holiday E-Retail Shopping Index, the analytics firm ForeSee asked more than 24,000 consumers about their recent online shopping experiences, and overall, we’re not overjoyed. On a 100-point satisfaction scale, e-retail as a whole received a score of 78, down from 80 in the 2011 holiday season. Several major retailers posted notable declines in online customer satisfaction—most obviously J.C. Penney, which, after a sluggish year in sales, saw its customer satisfaction rating drop 6% in the study.
“The luster of Apple is fading a bit,” Larry Freed, president and CEO of ForeSee told AllThingsD. “Keeping up with consumer’s rising expectations of the online customer experience is no easy task, but not keeping up can lead to decline in loyalty, word of mouth and revenue growth. In particular, even though Apple gets top dollar for their products, price is an area weakness for the company when it comes to satisfaction.”
Neither Apple nor JCPenney were in the top (bottom?) 10 for worst online customer satisfaction, however. A Businessweek post focused on just those retailers, including the two lowest-rated sites, the fashion e-retailer Gilt.com and the all-purpose FingerHut.com:
Of the two companies with the weakest customer reviews, Gilt.com scored poorly because of sub-par website “functionality.” As ForeSee spokesperson Sarah Allen-Short explains, part of the site’s low grade can be attributed to the fact that Gilt is a luxury outlet, so consumer expectations are higher… Fingerhut, meanwhile, received low marks across the board, underwhelming shoppers in the areas of price, content, functionality, and choice of merchandise.
While there are many reasons why consumers seem to be less satisfied with e-retail, the growing trend of disappointment may in fact be benefiting the world’s largest e-retailer, Amazon. Every time a retailer like J. Crew royally screws up a customer’s order, and every time a site like Gilt or Apple tries to sell items at absurdly high prices, Amazon looks better and better by comparison. Not only is Amazon arguably the best in the business with speedy, efficient processes for purchasing and customer service, it is also famous for especially competitive pricing.
It’s no wonder, then, that for the eight year in a row, Amazon received the highest overall customer satisfaction rating in ForeSee’s study.