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Amazon, Wal-Mart Know How to Keep Web Shoppers Happy: Survey

By Dec 31, 2008

E-commerce may have outperformed brick-and-mortar retail this holiday season, but that doesn’t mean shoppers were happy about how they were treated at those merchant Web sites

The latest “Holiday Top 40 Online Retail Satisfaction Index” from ForeSee Results and FGI Research says that only two Web sellers among that top tier of brands, Amazon.com and Netflix.com, earned ratings of “excellent” from users this holiday season.

Both e-marketers received grades of 84 in the index, which is based on the methodology of the American Customer Satisfaction Index from the University of Michigan. A score of 80 or higher on the 100-point scale is taken to indicate the highest level of shopper satisfaction. Amazon.com’s 84 represented a two-point improvement over the retailer’s 2007 index score, while Netflix’s rating was down two points from last year.

Down below the “excellent” level, a tight pack of Web retailers were cited for providing very good customer satisfaction. With a 79 index, cross-channel TV-and-Web marketer QVC.com led a large group of Internet sellers that earned a satisfaction index of 78, including Apple.com, the Barnes & Noble Web site sites for L.L.Bean and Wal-Mart and the e-commerce site for computer component seller Newegg.com, a perennial strong finisher in the customer happiness rankings.

Amazon.com just got through announcing that it had its “best ever” holiday sales season this year. The company was criticized for failing to provide specific sales figures to back that claim and offering instead only peak order and ship claims. But the ForeSee/ FGI survey may back up success claims by Jeff Bezos’ Web giant, since according to ForeSee customer satisfaction leads to increased loyalty, positive word of mouth, and eventually more chance of sales conversions.

“Last year, Amazon came in second (behind Netflix) and was in a tight pack of six retailers all within a four-point range,” the report says. “”It’s remarkable and admirable that such a clear industry leader is not resting on its laurels and is constantly striving to improve the customer experience.”

“Because satisfaction is predictive of financial success, we should see Amazon with better financial results than the rest once revenues are reported.”

Wal-Mart’s Web site is “climbing fast”, the report says, noting that this year’s score represents a five-point jump from 2006. “Their value model clearly plays well in this economic environment, so a key challenge for them will be whether they can retain customer loyalty when the economy improves,” the ForeSee study says.

The HP online store also saw a strong increase in its customer satisfaction rating this year, up 7 index points to 76. Other top gainers among online retailers included Staples.com (up 4 points to 77) and Target.com (up 3 points to 75.)

At the bottom of the listing, satisfaction scores of less than 70 are interpreted by ForeSee Results as indicating problems in customer satisfaction. According to the Index, this year’s customers served six of the 40 online retail brands with a 69-point warning for a poor customer experience: CircuitCity.com, Gap.com, HomeDepot.com, NeimanMarcus.com, and the Web sites for cross-channel seller HSN.com and the Internet pure play Overstock.com.

With the exception of the Home Depot Web site, all those low scores represented ratings declines from 2007. In the case of Gap.com, the site went from a solid 74 last year to 69 in 2008; HSN.com fell seven index points or more than 9%, the biggest drop in this year’s index.

Gap.com’s decline came after major changes to the Web site checkout feature that allowed shoppers to shop across four of the company’s brands using the same cart. While that may have seemed an important assist to Web shoppers, in fact they may view The Gap’s different business lines –including Old Navy, Banana Republic and Piperlime—as so different in terms of price, quality and style that having one checkout was not important, the Index says.

Overall, 40% of the measured sites saw a decline in customer satisfaction rankings from last year. Nine sites-about 22%–were unchanged, while 10 improved their 2007 scores. Three sites had 2007 user samples too small to register.

Price is only one of a number of elements contributing to consumer satisfaction with a Web shopping experience. ForeSee, which does online market research and consulting, maintains that overall improvements to Web merchandising and functionality can have a bigger effect on return on investment than price cuts.

“Customers were expecting big discounts this season and price was a pretty important factor, but it’s not the be-all end-all for satisfaction, even in a recession,” ForeSee president and CEO Larry Freed said in a statement. “It’s much smarter for the long term to improve satisfaction through Web experience improvements than erode brand equity through price cuts.”

The top 40 Online Retail Satisfaction Index analyzed data from more than 9,000 visitors to the Web sites of the 40 leading online retailers as determined by Internet Retailer magazine. Visits occurred between Dec. 1 2008 and Dec. 18.