For Online Shoppers, It’s the Most Wonderful Frustrating Time of the Year

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Take a look at the e-commerce sales totals from Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and it’s clear: Consumers are embracing online shopping like never before.

Major brick-and-mortar retailers are pushing hard for increased online sales, and stores have pumped up their websites as convenient, hassle-free alternatives to hitting the mall in person. And yet, judging by the experiences of many consumers over the past weekend, dealing with retailer websites can be just as aggravating as standing in a crowded store where the shelves are empty and customer service reps throw up their hands, saying they just can’t help you out.

During the 2011 holiday shopping season, Best Buy was the biggest big box bad guy from online shoppers’ perspective. The electronics retailer came under fire after accepting online orders in late November and early December—and then waiting until the week before Christmas to inform customers that their orders were being cancelled. Best Buy’s 2011 performance even led some shoppers to say that they would be boycotting the electronics giant this year, no matter how tempting the holiday deals seemed. (No deal, after all, is good if you can’t really buy it.)

(MORE: E-Retail Strikes Back! Amazon’s Latest Strategies in War for Holiday Shopper Dollars)

During the 2012 holiday shopping season, the early favorite for earning the title of Most Aggravating Online Shopping Experience seems to be Toys R Us. As CNN Money and others have reported, the Toys R Us Facebook page has been littered with complaints from customers who say they placed orders online over the holiday weekend, only to find out several days later (after Black Friday deals were gone) that their orders were cancelled. Commenters have griped about two-hour wait times with Toys R Us customer service, notices that they’d have to wait more than a week before refunds would be issued, and basically how the toy chain has wrecked their families’ holidays:

You ruined a lot of people’s Christmas, Mr. Grinch. Way to take everyone’s presents away. No, you don’t even get to be Mr. Grinch ’cause he at least returned everyone’s presents.

The Orlando Sentinel told the story of one disgruntled Toys R Us shopper:

The unhappy customers included Julie Casey of Orlando, who bought several Monster High toys after seeing online she could get a free doll if she bought $50 worth. But Casey wasn’t able to pick out her doll.

So she called Toys “R” Us today – and was on hold almost two hours before a customer service representative answered. (Casey used her speakerphone so she could get work done while waiting.) Finally, Toys “R” Us told her the dolls had sold out.

(MORE: Cyber Monday Was a Monster — But We Still Love Shopping in Stores)

In fairness to Toys R Us, at least it didn’t wait until late December to cancel orders, like Best Buy did last year. What’s more, data from the customer service research firm StellaService indicates that the average call wait time for Toys R Us over the four-day Black Friday-Cyber Monday period was 5 minutes, 15 seconds. That’s better than Walmart (average wait time over 11 minutes), and certainly better than two hours, but poor compared to Amazon, OfficeMax, and JCPenney, which all boasted call wait times of under one minute.

Also, Toys R Us is hardly the only major retailer to disappoint shoppers over the crazed Black Friday weekend. Slate writer Farhad Manjoo detailed his frustrations trying to buy a new Xbox 360 on Black Friday. Manjoo wasn’t trying to find a special deal on the game console; he was willing to pay full price, so long as he could get the unit that day. This proved impossible at Target and GameStop, which looked like “a disaster zone” and where the few employees present were of no help. Using, Manjoo saw that the consoles were in stock at a nearby Walmart. Only when he arrived at the store, an employee in a blue vest found laughable the idea that they might actually have Xbox 360s in stock that day. Here’s what happened next:

So, back in my car, I logged back in to Walmart’s site and ordered the Xbox, electing for same-day, in-store pickup. The purchase instantly went through; within four hours, the site promised, I’d get a message telling me to pick up my order. I was ecstatic.

But an hour and a half later, I received a horrible email: Wal-Mart had canceled my order. Despite what the site had promised, the Xbox was indeed sold out. “We’re sorry for any inconvenience this may cause you,” the email offered.

A dealnews post rounded up many of the other frustrations experienced by Black Friday’s online shopper. There were crashes by the Google Shopping tool and sites like Dell and Canon. Checking out at the sites for Walmart, TigerDirect, and hhgregg took an exceptionally long time, and sometimes customers found out that while they were waiting the items they’d wanted were sold out. Many of Amazon’s “Lightning Deals” proved to be teases that few could take advantage of, sometimes selling out in 30 seconds.

(MORE: The Hottest Section of the Department Store May Be Online)

There were also glitches with last season’s punching bag, Best Buy. The retailer’s site advertised “free shipping on everything,” and then mysteriously added shipping charges on orders. Then there’s this:

The store also bizarrely stopped charging sales tax at the point of placing the order, since its “tax calculation system” was temporarily down. That means customers would be charged tax at a later time, and if you didn’t want to be surprised when you checked your bank statement, it was up to you to figure out what that amount might be.

Guess that’s better than being surprised to find out that the items you wanted to put under the Christmas are never coming.