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Two new reports show that retailers are getting better at answer customers’ e-mail, but this summer’s load handling statistics predict a very crashy Christmas.

If these two new surveys are correct, top retailers have figured out how to communicate better with customers, but their servers are getting a lot worse at talking with other servers.

That second warning about load handling—from San Mateo, Calif.-based Web traffic monitoring firm Keynote Systems—is ominous as retailers prepare to head into the traffic-intensive holiday season.

“Given that this is the summertime and that they’re going to receive four times the load in a few months,” there is a strong concern that many top e-commerce sites are not prepared to handle this year’s fourth quarter, said Dan Berkowitz, a Keynote senior director of corporate communications.

To read more about Google’s e-commerce efforts, click here.

Added Ben Rushlo, Keynote’s senior manager of professional services: “If these sites are already struggling, then that’s a major concern.” Rushlo said apparel retailers showed some of the weakest load handling.

A small part of the reason behind those load balancing problems is constantly increasing traffic and whether equipment upgrades and additions have kept up—Rushlo reported more major e-commerce site outages in 2006 compared with 2005—but a more significant issue is increasing site sophistication.

As retailers add to their sites more advanced services—such as push to talk and multimedia demonstrations—it is causing more drag on their systems than they might realize.

“As companies have been putting more fancy stuff on their site, people are perhaps not really counting on the fact that you can really slow down your site,” Berkowitz said, adding that the retail sector that seems to have handled load issues the best has been financial services.

“The fastest sites we’ve always seen for years have been financial services, especially broker sites” because of the huge potential financial impact on traders if a transaction is delayed even a few seconds.

But not all the recent e-commerce site monitoring news is bad. Right around the time the Keynote report was released, the Ipswich, Mass.-based Customer Respect Group issued its periodic e-commerce analysis and found a “vast improvement in retail sites” in e-mail communications with customers, which “in most industries is pretty poor,” said Terry Golesworthy, president of the Customer Respect Group.

In 2006, the CRP’s survey found 8 percent of customer e-mail requests being ignored, compared with 27 percent in 2005, and the groups were comparing roughly the same companies, Golesworthy said.

“Last year we were hearing things like, ‘Do you know how many e-mails we get?’ and complaints about spam and ‘If they really want us, they’ll call,’” Golesworthy said. Such excuses for weak e-mail reply rates have dropped sharply this year, he said.

The report, here in PDF form, analyzed 51 major retail companies.

“Nearly half of the companies measured performed exceptionally well in communications, the lowest scoring area for most industries. The best communicators were Saks, Newegg, Footlocker, L.L. Bean and Victoria’s Secret,” he said.

Golesworthy said 69 percent of retailers responded with 24 hours, compared with an “all-industry” rate of 52 percent.

“And most impressive, 91 percent of the responses were helpful and relevant against the all-industry 64 percent rate.

“New communications innovations such as Online Chat also scored high with 22 percent of sites supporting this feature now, almost unheard of a year ago and exceeding even the high-tech industry.”

The top 10 scorers on the Customer Respect report—see a copy of the full report, here in PDF form—were Sears, Payless, L.L. Bean, CVS, Wal-Mart, Circuit City, Nike, Staples, Amazon and Eddie Bauer.

“The 10 worst performers were—from bad to worst—Coldwater Creek, Foot Locker, Gap, Safeway, Target, Abercrombie & Fitch, Land’s End, OfficeMax, PCMall and Old Navy.

Keynote only released its top performers; it said it wanted to avoid the political backlash from releasing the worst performers.

There is a slight overlap in both reports’ top retailers, with Circuit City, Staples and Eddie Bauer appearing near the top of each list.

Other Keynote top performers were Office Depot, CDW, Borders,, Target, Kohls and J.C. Penney.

Other retailers that Keynote said it evaluated but that did not appear in the top slots were, BestBuy, Dell, Wal-Mart, Banana Republic, Gap, L.L. Bean, Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, Barnes & Noble, and Tower.

Both reports, however, were evaluating very different things, with the Customer Respect Group using human inquiries, responses and observations to assess site usability, trust and communications. Keynote’s study is mostly based on software analysis of site performance.

Keynote described its methodology as examining “the technical performance of leading retail sites, including overall site responsiveness and reliability, by running 6,500 Web site interactions with each site over a one-month period.

Keynote uses its proprietary Transaction Perspective measurement computers to perform the actions of a consumer browsing and purchasing.

The agents performed transactions, collecting details of site performance and reliability during a one-month period during which they collected more than 6,500 data points and examined 40 key performance metrics for each site.”

In this study, Keynote only looked at three retail categories: electronics; apparel; and books and music.

Even though the Customer Respect Group’s report had lots of favorable news for e-commerce players when it came to them listening and responding to their customers, the report drew some not-so-encouraging conclusions.

Retailers are taking all of that form-based e-mail feedback and using it to “go back to the customer on a fairly regular basis” for “ongoing marketing without permission”; “that’s called spam. They might be going a bit too far.”

Even worse, many retailers were sharing those names with others, resulting in spam from many different companies, the report said.

“It is disrespectful to share personal data for marketing purposes with other companies, but it is even worse not to offer opt-out,” the report said.

“Thirty-five percent of retail companies failed to tell their site users how to opt out of data-sharing, a worrying statistic for users of these sites. Twenty percent offered online opt-out, and 2 percent allowed offline opt-out.”

Although many retailers fared much better when responding to customer e-mails, the nature of those e-mails made a big difference.

For example, if a customer gave a multi-part question, he was much more likely to be disappointed and partly ignored.

“The quality of those e-mail responses have gone up if you asked a fairly simple and straightforward question,” Golesworthy said.

“If you asked two questions, the quality of the response went down significantly. The second question is often ignored.”

Questions that were phrased more politely and more nicely often were responded to in kind.

“If the question was couched in friendly terms, the answer came back in friendly terms,” he said.

They had looked for gender differences, when messages were coming from people with traditionally male or female names, but “we didn’t see any gender differences of note.”

The CRG report did, however, find a disturbing cutback in support for dial-up (non-broadband) users and those with visual problems.

“Neither of those are high on the agenda, in the rush to get the pages out the door,” Golesworthy said.

Color-blindness—which Golesworthy said impacts about 6 percent of males to varying degrees, which is twice the number of females impacted—can prevent the customer from seeing color distinctions that are sometimes intended to convey information or provide navigation.

For customers who are visually impaired in other ways, sites are supposed to support screen readers with tags that use text to describe all images.

“‘Click here’ means nothing,” he said.

Golesworthy said his team uses a variety of tools—including a freeware accessibility tool bar that he encourages retailers to use to enhance their sites.

Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman can be reached at

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