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Source: Ecommerce Times

Posted on March 18, 2001

      After surviving the dot-com shakeout and now a slowing economy, many e-tailers are too distracted to remember one of the essentials of running a smart business: Listen to the customer.

      Why is it that online merchants can't seem to hear what their current and potential customers are telling them?

      The e-tail business has only generated a single-digit percentage of total U.S. retail sales, and some might say that speaks volumes -- that the public has made its wants and needs clear through its actual buying pattern.

Trust Issues

Whatever happened to the idea of building on what already works? Finding new strategies to woo fickle e-shoppers is important, but equally critical for e-tailers is studying their market carefully and respecting their customers' wishes.

      For example, the public continually expresses its lack of confidence regarding online security issues, yet many dot-coms bury security policies deep within their sites.

      Clever hackers and crackers abound. This week, the Computer Security Institute and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released their sixth Computer Crime and Security Survey.

      This year's results indicate that 85 percent of the more than 500 Internet businesses polled experienced security system breaches at least once in the past year.

      More than half of those who reported their site had been illegally entered said it happened 10 or more times.

      Meanwhile, consumers continue to express doubt about the safety of online shopping. Those doubts go unheard, apparently.

Ready for Close-Up

While bolstering online security needs to be priority No. 1 for dot-coms, there are a number of other areas that need attention. Just listen to what 547 online shoppers told PricewaterhouseCoopers in a recent survey. According to that survey, 44 percent of respondents said they want close-up product images.

      However, when I was recently shopping for a Palm IIIC handheld device, I visited 10 Web sites to compare prices and shipping costs. Six sites did not even allow me to zoom in on the product image. Two sites that did allow me to see it up close brought forth images so fuzzy and distorted that I could not read the words under the function keys.

      Count me among that 44 percent of frustrated shoppers experiencing eyestrain.

Is It Here?

The PwC study also indicated that 39 percent of e-commerce consumers are concerned about product availability when Web shopping.

      I ordered a pair of shoes from an e-tailer on February 5th. On March 3rd I received a notice via regular mail that my order could not be filled because the shoes were no longer available. Why did it take a month to tell me that? In a store, I would have known right away.

      That e-tailer has lost my confidence and my possible future patronage.

Is Anybody There?

PwC also found that 25 percent of its respondents would appreciate a toll-free telephone number that would connect them to a customer service agent.

      How many times do e-shoppers have to say they want contact with real human beings before online merchants hear them? How tough could it be to employ and train a few people to respond to customer calls for help?

      The mechanization of consumerism will only find a mass audience if it is backed up by a human voice and an empathetic ear. Sometimes it's simply about listening.

Hear Me! Hear Me!

And speaking of listening, it can't be that difficult for Net merchants to provide customers with online evaluations of their merchandise from those who have already bought it.

      PwC found 24 percent of respondents would like to read product reviews and evaluations from shoppers. Evidently, we e-shoppers trust our fellow consumers to tell us the truth about products we are considering.

The Mall Beckons

A recent report from Roper Starch Worldwide and Yahoo! Internet Life indicates that 74 percent of the Internet users who responded have visited a department store in the past month.

      E-tailers, are you listening? Consumers are telling you that e-shopping works for them on some levels, but it may be -- dare I say it? -- a supplemental convenience, rather than a primary shopping experience.

      Smart marketing is a combination of creating desire and responding to consumer demand and needs. It's the responding part that seems to trip up e-tailers.

      If e-tailers truly want to increase their online traffic, close more sales and become a part of mainstream America's lifestyle, they will have to start actively listening to what consumers are saying.

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