Tackling E-Com Wish Lists

Familiar issues surface during holiday season.

More shoppers than ever are doing their holiday shopping online this year, but online commerce sites continue to battle many of the same issues as in previous years.

E-commerce measurement and ratings service BizRate.com pegs commerce site traffic at 30 percent higher than last year. Online shoppers will spend approximately $11.9 billion during this holiday season on Web retail and travel, according to a report from New York-based Jupiter Media Metrix Inc.

To capture a fair share of that spending, many online sites are deploying technology to enhance the shopping experience, improve customer service, combat online fraud and better handle returns.

Eddie Bauer Inc.s EddieBauer.com is embracing multimedia. The multichannel apparel and accessories retailer last week said it is enhancing product information on its Web site with videos in a trial project this holiday season. Videos are available at the site for Eddie Bauers 30 top-selling gift items, using Vendaria Inc.s Envision platform for integrating video with Web content.

Envision not only hosts and serves the video files, it also detects the connection speed of the user and serves the files in a compressed format that slower-speed connections can handle.

"We think well be able to do a better job of demonstrating the high- level features and benefits of some products," said Brian Walker, manager of business development for Eddie Bauer e-commerce, in Redmond, Wash. "We thought the more technical the product, the more dynamically we could demonstrate it."

Walker said its too early to tell what kind of results the technology, which debuted Nov. 12, is getting, especially since most of the products are top-selling gift items anyway. But Eddie Bauer will expand the technology to more items if it proves successful, Walker said.

Theres another benefit as well. The company said it hopes to gain better information about what kind of speed its customers connect at.

If the trial proves successful, the other sites of parent company The Spiegel Group (Spiegel.com and Newport-news.com) will likely adopt Vendarias Envision as well, Walker said. All three sites are also using another new technology this holiday season: Newgistics Inc.s ReturnValet, a system that automates returns of merchandise bought from a Web site or other direct channels, such as catalogs.

Returns of unwanted merchandise have long dogged e-commerce sites, choking off profits in the process. But ReturnValet is making the process a bit easier for Spiegel, according to Spiegel spokeswoman Allison Scherer, in Downers Grove, Ill.

"One of the things weve gained is advance notice of what items are coming back to us," Scherer said. "It helps with our inventory planning."

She explained how having customers return merchandise through ReturnValet, rather than send it back directly themselves, should speed the return process as well since product data is input when merchandise is returned, not when Spiegel receives it.

"It should save us money and ultimately save the customer money, while making the return process as easy as possible," Scherer said.

It may also help ensure return business for Spiegel. Scherer said it typically takes 14 days to process a return by mail and credit the customers account. She said the company hopes to shorten that time frame using ReturnValet.

Another traditional killer of e-commerce has been online fraud, which the anonymous nature of the Web channel has made it particularly susceptible to.

Visa USA last week debuted its Verified by Visa payer authentication scheme to combat fraudulent online transactions, but many online retailers arent waiting for it to catch on.

Sharper Image Corp.s SharperImage.com is using Qsent Inc.s iQ411 software to automate the process of validating shipping addresses that dont match credit card billing addresses.

Qsents technology automatically checks to make sure that ship-to addresses match up with ship-to phone numbers and that billing addresses match billing phone numbers. It also ensures that ship-to addresses are legitimate mailing addresses.

In addition to adding another line of defense against online fraud, the software makes the address verification process more efficient for SharperImage.com.

"It increases our efficiency because we have fewer callbacks to make," said Paul Towey, senior manager of order processing and customer service for SharperImage.com, in San Francisco. "And it shortens the lag time between when the order is placed and when we ship the merchandise out. Theres even a cost savings from not having to call directory assistance to track people down."

Theres still a place for simple customer service this holiday season, too. Burlington Coat Factorys Coat.com site tried to get by with a single e-mail box last year—a bad mistake.

This year, the Burlington, N.J., company has turned to E.piphany Inc.s contact center software, called Service Center, to add customer response forms and speed response times from customer service representatives. The new system also helps the site identify areas of weakness that are causing customer issues, according to Ginger Atwater, Burlington Coat Factorys director of e-business, in Lebanon, N.H.

"Last year, we had too many customer contacts to handle out of one e-mail box," Atwater said. "This year, we anticipate even more business than last year, and with more business comes more customer contact."