The retail industry has improved during the past 12 months in terms of online customer respect and web site usability, according to the Q4 2007 Online Customer Respect Study of the retail industry from The Customer Respect Group.
The study evaluated the web sites of a representative sample of major retail companies to produce a Customer Respect Index (CRI) - an objective measure of corporate performance from an online customer's perspective.
Industry-wide improvement seen
The average CRI rating for the retail industry was 6.1 on a 10-point scale. This average represented a slight improvement during the past 12 months. The industry also became the leader of all industries reviewed in 2007, out-performing the insurance, telecommunications, and financial services industries, among others.
Retail's strong performance was particularly influenced this year by enhanced self-service facilities and a greater emphasis on providing effective real-time answers to customer queries, removing barriers to the completion of online purchases.
Five sectors were represented in the study, and the leading retail web sites within each of these categories were:
- Accessories and apparel: Ralph Lauren;
- General merchandisers: Overstock.com;
- Home and home office: Lowe's;
- Food and drug stores: CVS;
- Electronic goods: Newegg.com.
In particular, Lowe's, Overstock.com, and Ralph Lauren all achieved an 'excellent' CRI rating, placing them well ahead of most competitors.
The retail industry was rated best in the area of communicating with online visitors in 2007, scoring 7.0 for Responsiveness (compared to 6.5 scored by the next highest-rated industries, which were financial services and telecommunications). The variety of contact methods available to retail customers was seen as a very positive factor.
Some 22% of retail web sites now provide online chat facilities, compared to the all-industry average of only 12%. Also noted in the study was the emergence of pro-active chat (where visitors are invited to engage in a context-sensitive discussion based on their online behaviour at the time). The option of "Click to Call", which prompts a telephone call directly from the retailer to the user, also showed a strong upward trend as retailers seek to limit web site abandonment.
Other communication channels also remain well supported, as 65% of e-mail enquiries to retailers were responded to within one day (compared to 57% among all other industries), and 83% of enquiries received a helpful reply (also well ahead of the all-industry average of 60%).
Web navigation improvements
Moving around a web site by so-called "fast track" methods has also been a major focus for many retailers this year, with 96% of retail web sites containing FAQ sections (compared to 61% among all other industries). The FAQs on retail web sites were generally easy to locate (in fact 65% were linked to from the home page) and were very well structured (over 82% contained a search facility and/or anchor links).
The percentage of sites containing a search facility was also far above average (96% for retailers, compared to a 73% average for all industries). However, the retail industry did not cater particularly well for disabled visitors as its Accessibility rating was below the all-industry average for 2007.
Another online retail trend observed in the study was an increasing capability for users to add selections to the shopping basket (70%) and to see actual prices (72%) without having to register for membership with the retailer's web site first.
Consumer privacy concerns
The biggest overall improvement for the retail industry this year was in the Transparency sub-index, which measures clarity and transparency of privacy policies. Five companies (Overstock.com, Ralph Lauren, Kmart, Gap, and Banana Republic) all achieved an 'excellent' rating in this sub-index.
There has been a significant improvement in the general structure of these policies, and the majority of retail web sites now make it easy for users to find the specific content of interest. There was an especially strong improvement in the clarity of companies' descriptions of their opt-in and opt-out policies, as retailers seem to be increasingly realising the value of openness and clarity.
But in terms of Principles (which measures the actual content of those policies) the picture was slightly less impressive, with a marked increase in the number of companies that use personal data for ongoing marketing programmes. Some 82% of retail companies reserve the right to use data collected online to market their products in the future (compared to only 69% in other industries). Only two companies (Lowe's and Ralph Lauren) achieved an 'excellent' rating for Principles.
Still leading the way
According to Terry Golesworthy, president for The Customer Respect Group, "The retail industry sets the standard for innovation and trends online, and is often followed by other industries in the following 12 months. We can see from this study a major integration between the self-serve web and back office personnel working hard to keep online customers on track. There is, of course, the expected rise in data capture and marketing to customers, and this is the one area that should be addressed so as not to overwhelm the customer."