E-Com Convenience Is Double-Edged

It's easier to shop online, but it's also easier to go elsewhere when sites make it difficult.

When a retailer sells a gift certificate, the buyer (that is, the gift giver) makes that vendor an interest-free loan and often recruits a new customer as well. These supply-side benefits travel well into the world of e-business. As Jay Leno said last month, "Why spoil the impersonal feel of a gift certificate by actually sending it yourself, when it can come direct from the store by e-mail?"

Levity aside, it would be logical for gift certificate transactions to be a top priority for retail site designers—but during the holidays just ended, I found more than one site surprisingly clumsy in meeting this need.

For example, imagine walking into a brick-and-mortar storefront, bearing a gift certificate that you wanted to use to make a purchase. Having selected an item that costs no more than the certificates value, you arrive at the cash register—only to be asked for your credit card.

"The certificate covers the whole amount," you patiently explain, but the clerk repeats the request. "You wont be charged unless the total is more than the certificate value," the clerk assures you, but the transaction cant go forward unless you let them record your credit card data.

Am I unusual in finding this an unacceptable demand? Its exactly what happened when I tried to use a gift certificate on one Web site near the end of last year. Nor could the problem be resolved by calling the customer service telephone number. The person who answered that call could only conduct a transaction through the same Web interface that I could have accessed myself, and a credit card number was still needed to get past the first stage of placing the order.

I think we can all agree that this is absurd, regardless of whether a store is virtual or real. Suppose a gift certificate recipient doesnt even have a credit card. But this Web retailer combined bad site design with inadequate service facilities and/or training and wound up spending money on costly telephone calls—let alone the negative word of mouth that may follow.

The convenience of online shopping is double-edged: Its easier to shop, but its also easier to go elsewhere when sites make it difficult to buy. Lets keep up the pressure in 2003.

Tell me what makes you abandon your shopping cart at peter_coffee@ziffdavis.com.