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Top ten recommendations issued to improve Christmas online shopping

International business and technology consultancy PLAUT today called on the
e-commerce industry to improve online customer service ahead of the
Christmas period. PLAUT issued a checklist of ten recommendations for
e-commerce sites to follow after conducting the PLAUT e-Returns Study(tm) of
25 major UK e-commerce Web sites. Recommendations include:

1 Appoint a director of customer fulfilment

2 Ensure cultural and organisational alignment

3 Understand your system and processes

4 Test and retest your system extensively

5 Clearly display cancellations and returns policies and adhere to them

6 Aim to centralise all customer communication

7 Communicate quickly

8 Refund money promptly

9 Make the cancellation and returns process simple

10 Aspire to treat customers as individuals

The PLAUT e-Returns Study(tm) found serious problems in the order
cancellations and returns process in 72% of sites, ranging from not
refunding money to being impossible to cancel orders online. Only 15% of the
companies examined provided a level of customer service equivalent to that
expected by consumers on the High Street. An average service level was
offered by the remaining 13%. A full copy of the report is available at

The PLAUT e-Returns Study(tm) was based on a single test purchase carried
out in September 2000 using a detailed and structured methodology. The
single purchase scenario was devised to best represent the typical purchase,
cancellation and return behaviour of an average customer.

Key flaws identified in online customer care practices were:

* Company uncontactable either via phone or email, despite being put on hold
by phone operators for more than 90 minutes

* Retailer delivered goods 21 days after confirming that the order had been

* Customer charged for goods that had been confirmed as cancelled, despite
retailer informing the customer that they would not be charged

* Retailer completely lost the online order and could not accept returns by
post, suggested they were taken back to the nearest High Street store

* Retailer refunded money after goods were returned, minus the VAT and
without any explanation

The Plaut e-Returns Study(tm) rated five companies as providing equivalent
customer service to the High Street. Customers at these sites were able to
cancel orders online without being charged.

Overall, the study identified 13 major problems in the e-commerce after
sales process:

* Companies accepted the order but items were missing

* Financial errors in returns process

* Delivery to credit card holder address only

* Inability to get an answer out of anyone/speak to anyone

* Failure to cancel order via Web site when claim to do so

* Tracking numbers not matching online and off

* Standard e-mail responses to specific requests

* Bugs in site/site not tested on all browser types

* Inability to take returns by post- have to be via High Street

* Over 21 days to return money after cancellation or goods returned

* Impossible to cancel order via e-mail/Web site

* Orders delivered despite acknowledged cancellation

* Not displaying a customer returns policy

"This study shows that many e-commerce sites are paying lip service to
customer service," commented Karl Thurston, managing director, PLAUT UK.
"Service this poor wouldn't be tolerated on the High Street, and must be
putting people off shopping online."

"Businesses operating purely on the Web that are not customer-centric will
fail, while traditional High Street businesses that don't address online
customer relationship issues are likely to damage their whole business.
There is a real danger that poor online customer care will lead to a
miserable Christmas for consumers and ultimately for retailers as well."

MORI recently predicted that 7 million people in the UK will shop online
this Christmas, spending an average of £130 each. NOP predicts that £10
billion will be spent online in 2000 while business analysts at Gartner
Group have calculated that it costs between $50 and $300 to 'win' each
online customer.

In the PLAUT e-Returns Study(tm), orders were placed on Web sites offering
books/CDs, toys/gifts, clothing, household goods, food and drink and
computer peripherals, with a typical value of £50 to mirror likely Christmas
purchase patterns. The study surveyed traditional retailers, e-tailers and
specialist online shops to ensure a comprehensive insight into the Web
shopping experience in the UK. These orders were then cancelled if possible
via email within 24 hours of being placed, and then returned if delivered.
Sites were evaluated on speed of response, communication with customers and
keeping promises made in their stated returns policies.

"Companies must realise that e-commerce is much more than building an
inviting Web site and making a sale. They must ensure that their business
processes, and in particular their customer care practices, are fully
enabled and continually supported by integrated IT systems," continued
Thurston. "We advise companies to appoint one person, such as a director of
customer fulfilment, to be responsible for the whole buying process, to
understand and resolve the pressure points in their business processes and
most of all to continually test their e-commerce systems."

Notes for editors:

1. PLAUT classified the manner in which e-commerce businesses handled the
sales and after sales on a scale of 1 to 5, ranging from very poor to
excellent. Details of the classifications and how companies performed are
outlined below:


Main performance characteristic


1 Very Poor
Unable to cancel order either online or offline - Dell

Delivered order despite acknowledging cancellation - Dixons

Took more than 21 days to provide a refund after
cancellation of order, despite being told that no charge
would be made - Racing Green

Returns policy involves visiting company's High Street outlet - Toys R Us

Full refund not provided. Bugs in site - WHSmith

2 Poor

Took more than 21 days to provide a refund after goods
returned. Unable to cancel via Web site - Amazon

Took more than 21 days to refund after goods returned. - Alternative Gifts
Co, Anything LeftHanded

Standard email responses with no follow up. - BOL

Took one week to acknowledge cancelled order -

Delivered some goods despite cancellation of order - HMV

Mismatch between service provided and service level - Le Gourmet

or returns policy detailed on Web site - Francais

Site crashed during sale but still charged - Sainsburys

Unable to cancel online - Tesco

Delay in acknowledging cancelled order - Thorntons

3 Average

Took between 7 and 21 days to provide a refund
after goods returned - Firebox, Charles Tyrwhitt

Unable to cancel or track order via Web site,
forcing customer to use phone, fax or post - Intersaver

4 Good

Straightforward cancellation procedure. - eToys

Credit card charged but re-credited within 7 days -

5 Excellent

Flawless purchase, delivery and returns process - Appliance Direct,, Country Bookshop, Marks and Spencer, Virgin Wines

2. A full management report on the e-Returns Study(tm) is available at

3. Photographs and illustrations are available from Rainier both in
electronic and print format.

4. The key for the ranking of the e-commerce sites surveyed established is:
Very Poor: cancellation/return experience likely to cause loss of customer

Poor: cancellation/return experience likely to cause customer frustration

Average: cancellation/return experience likely to cause customer

Good: cancellation/return experience satisfactory, but some imperfections

Excellent: cancellation/return experience likely to encourage customer

5. The Plaut e-Returns Study(tm) was carried out over a period of 30 days
from 20 September to 20 October 2000. Plaut acknowledges that other surveys
at different times may yield different results. A full list of sites
surveyed is available as part of the management report at

6. The Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000, which came
into effect on 31st October 2000 transposes into UK law the EU directive on
the protection of consumers in respect of distance contracts. Key features
of the regulations are that the consumer must be given clear information
about the goods or services offered, after making a purchase the consumer
must be sent confirmation and that the consumer has a cooling-off period of
7 working days to cancel the transaction.

7. As in the High Street all Web sites surveyed had a returns policy stating
that goods could be cancelled or returned after being ordered.

8. PLAUT is a leading business and technology-consulting firm that employs a
team of 1,800 consultants worldwide. The company recently went public on the
Neuer Markt in Frankfurt and has annual revenues in excess of £250 million.
PLAUT has been established in the UK since 1994 and provides eBusiness,
supply chain, customer relationship management (CRM) and ERP business
consulting and IT services across a wide range of industries. PLAUT’s
current clients include eLabsEurope, DigMedia plc, Miele, Paramount, Xerox,
European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Bulgari, Coats and Philip
Morris , among others.

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