Strictly Business: Online customer service is improving

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

Published:

 
photoCami Joner, Columbian business reporter

Most of us aren't surprised by statistics showing we shopped online a lot more during the recent holiday season.

We're just getting more comfortable shopping in front of our computer screens, according to ShopperTrak, which used 60,000 traffic-tracking devices installed at large retailers to gather the evidence. Those devices showed foot traffic at the nation's retailers fell 14.6 percent this holiday season compared to the previous year. But retail sales rose an overall 2.7 percent in November and December.

That means we're doing more shopping online, says ShopperTrak founder Bill Martin. Hey, you've gotta admit it's much more convenient than the all-brick-and-mortar store shopping jaunts in holiday seasons of past years.

The practice is sure to eliminate the term, "shop 'til you drop."

And I'll be the first to confess that I'm a shopaholic. I love browsing the mall, department stores and boutiques around Clark County.

But online shopping is so convenient, time-saving and hassle free. It can take place anywhere at any time, whether during an evening at home, on a lunch break or a Saturday morning while lounging around in your PJs.

Yep, shopping online is as easy as falling off a log.

Unless … you needed to return one of those gifts, like the ill-fitting Levi's or the funny-looking wristwatch.

In that case, it would have been smart to read up on your virtual retailer's return policy before clicking the "check out now" tab. In my case, it also would have been smart to save the prepaid return shipping label instead of shelling out 15 bucks in shipping, to return the blue jeans to the Levis.com return depot off yonder in Walton, Ky.

Luckily, some online retailers are bending over backward to accept returns in their push to grow customer loyalty. At the top of the list is Amazon.com. The online retail giant was ranked No. 1 in a customer service survey of 100 brands across several industry sectors. The survey, conducted by ForeSee, included brands such as social media site Facebook and quick-service restaurant McDonald's.

Some stores, including Macy's, Target and REI, allow online purchase returns at their brick-and-mortar stores, in some cases. Many want to generate repeat virtual business by giving customers a hassle-free return experience.

For example, I actually spoke with a concerned human being when I called a toll-free number to return a shirt to LL Bean.

Its firms like these that are setting the customer service standards for online commerce, now a permanent fixture in the retail industry. Guess the concept of online shopping really isn't all that different from the late 19th century and early 20th century retail king, the Sears and Roebuck mail-order catalog. It offered everything from hardware to clothing -- and even those ready-to-assemble houses delivered to your lot.

Admit it, you didn't miss circling jammed parking lots or schlepping in and out of every store in town in search of a crock pot.

Admit it, you did not miss hearing those grumpy sales associates say, "Happy holidays," without meaning it.