Mystery Shopper Study Shows Etailers Sacrifice Service For Cost Containment, Efficiencies

Top Performing Websites
Etailing Group Customer
Experience Index

Although online sales continued to outpace brick-and-mortar sales in 2009, online retailers still felt the pinch of the recent recession during the most recent holiday season. In response, a number of online retailers chose cost containment over improvements in customer service in Q4 2009, according to the e-tailing group’s 12th Annual Mystery Shopping Study.

Merchants have made trade-offs on communication effectiveness and information accessibility to cut costs, the study reports. Year-over-year it took merchants longer to respond to email communication (20.69 minutes in Q4 ‘09 vs. 20.15 in Q4 ’08). Email responses were less likely to offer a personalized salutation (75% vs. 82%) and fewer gave correct answers (72% vs. 77%).

Additionally, call center performance was less effective in Q4 2009, with longer wait times for customer calls and some return policies have become more restrictive. In Q4 ’09 14% of merchants surveyed offered a 100% unconditional return policy versus 72% in ’08.


At a time when consumers are demanding more and better information on a timely basis, loyalty and brand perception will likely take a hit if retailers continue down the path of cutting costs at the expense of customer service. “I think consumers will get frustrated when they don’t get the answers they need,” says Lauren Freedman, founder and president of the e-tailing group. The problem is not automation per se, but the fact that the retailers are not providing timely responses and providing correct answers to consumers’ questions, she explains.

The Positives: Delivery Speed and Cart Improvements
Merchants did make some positive progress during Q4 2009, by improving the speed of deliveries and investing in technologies that are providing better information during the check-out experience.

For consumers who chose to purchase their gifts at the last minute in ’09, they were able to receive their packages quicker (4.05 days in ’09 vs. 4.76 in ’08).  Merchants also made it easier for consumers to check out and reorder. In 2009, 89% offered pre-populated customer information in the shopping cart, 50% offered single cart checkout from multiple merchants under one umbrella brand, and 10% offered the ability to reorder from order history.


More and more retailers are using some form of social media and/or customer feedback mechanism to interact with customers. In 2009 22% of merchants surveyed offered post-order targeted email to review/rate a purchase and 26% provide post-order targeted email surveys.

This trend will continue as retailers realize the benefits of collecting and responding to customer feedback. “Certainly brands and manufacturers and retailers with visual products or brands or customer bases that tend to be younger were first in the fray but there are many mainstream merchants who have also adopted,” says Freedman.

Mobile commerce also is on a slow rise, with 13% of retailers surveyed participating.

Top Performers for 2009
Ten of the 100 online retailers researched for the survey were recognized by the etailing group as the best of fulfilling customer expectations. Those retailers are (in alphabetical order):

  1. Blue Nile
  2. Brooks Brothers
  3. Coach
  4. Crutchfield
  5. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters
  6. MoMA
  7. Land’s End
  8. REI
  9. Saks Fifth Avenue
  10. Zappos

Three of the top 10 – Brooks Brothers, Crutchfield and Land’s End – also made the survey top 10 in 2008.

The top performers were chosen as other sites were eliminated for not possessing “must have” criteria in the following order of importance:

  1. Keyword search
  2. Four or fewer days to receive package
  3. Adequately and correctly answer e-mail question within 24 hours; providing a specific (rather than automated) answer
  4. On-site home page accessibility of toll-free phone number 2.0 or higher on a scale of 3.0
  5. CSR product knowledge when calling toll-free# 2.0 or higher on a scale of 3.0
  6. Five or fewer clicks to checkout
  7. Email shipping confirmation sent
  8. Email order confirmation sent with order number and customer service information included
  9. Real-time inventory in shopping cart or on product page

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