Contest May Show Whether Online Retailers Learned From Mistakes



When the dot-com intelligentsia commence with their annual ritualof opining on the winners and losers of the holiday E-retailing season, one company will rely on the most unlikely of sources for its information: the customers themselves. For the second year, eConvergent Inc., which specializes in E-business customer- interaction software and services, is inviting online shoppers to share their best and worst experiences. It's dangling $250 gift certificates as motivation.

After being overwhelmed with entries for last year's inaugural competition, which identified Amazon.com, Buy.com, and SmarterKids.com as the kings of holiday E-retailing, eConvergent reports that entries for this year are already streaming. Regrettably, eConvergent didn't divulge the three sites that provided the worst shopping experiences of 1999, and it hasn't decided whether it will do so this year. CEO Clyde Foster says, however, that the company is contacting last year's E-retailing lemons to find out what they're doing differently this year.

What's most surprising heading into this year's contest is that the company, which gets a front-row seat for its clients' E-commerce activities, expects a repeat of 1999, when things got bad enough that the Federal Trade Commission stepped in and ordered a handful of problem sites to whip their back-end fulfillment systems into shape or risk further action. "Our hunch is it's not going to get a lot better," Foster says. "Pure E-tailers haven't invested enough in customer service and fulfillment." Of course, the worse things are for E-retailers, the better 2001 is likely to be for eConvergent.

Forrester Research analyst David Cooperstein is more optimistic. He says many E-retailers have been improving the online shopping experience. "People learned their lessons, and they're thinking like catalog companies."

As for the validity of the contest findings, the fact that a more- scientific Forrester study also gave Amazon and Buy.com high marks for the 1999 holiday season leads Cooperstein to believe that eConvergent's contest participants were genuine in their submissions. Foster admits the company isn't employing any technique for checking the validity of entries, but he says interviews with last year's winners didn't raise any red flags: "We didn't get the sense that we were being led on."

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