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Retail Web sites pack 'em in

This holiday season online vendors were hopping to meet demand, and for the most part, they seem to have passed the test.

    Internet merchants report that despite heavier-than-expected sales, they managed to deliver most of their products on time. And so far, not many items are being returned.

    But the push to deliver packages before Christmas got top executives at many Web storefronts out from behind their desks and into distribution centers to pack boxes. Many online retailers added shifts in the last week.

    "The way we're going to get people to shop with us again was by doing a great job of this Christmas, getting packages out on time," said Phil Palishook, vice president of marketing at eToys, where more than 95 percent of packages were shipped within 24 hours of the order being taken. For returns, eToys had customer service representatives on the job part of Christmas day.

    "If people have a bad first-time experience, they're probably not going to come back," said Judy Neuman, who runs online sales for Eddie Bauer. counted 99.41 percent fulfillment of orders after adding extra shifts, said spokesman Bill Curry. But some customers whose orders couldn't be located in stock were notified a week before Christmas that their items might not arrive in time.

    Nicole Vanderbilt, e-commerce analyst at Jupiter Communications, thinks returns will be a key indicator of online merchants' success, although helpful statistics won't be available for several weeks.

    "This Christmas was a move away from early adopters buying online to really mass-market consumers buying online," Vanderbilt said. "Most importantly, it was people buying online for people who aren't online users."

    Returns from online customers of Eddie Bauer are lower than for catalog or physical storefronts, Neuman said. And returns are easier for her customers, since online buyers can take merchandise back to any of the company's 500 storefronts.

    But not all brick-and-mortar retailers take returns from their online sites, often because for tax reasons they maintain strict separations between their physical and cyberstores.

    Storefront returns don't work for online-only retailers such as eToys, which issues credit at its online store for returns. For gift recipients who aren't online, the online toy store will take phone orders in a pinch.

    For online video retailer, even heavy holiday traffic was no match for a Titanic promotion run earlier in the year, when it sold almost 300,000 videos for $9.95 apiece.

    Returns tend not to be an issue for videos, said chief executive Julie Wainwright, because most people buy a video after they've seen the movie, so they know they like the product.

    Vanderbilt noted that overall, the customer experience at a Web storefront will be a major factor in which firms succeed and which fail in online retail.

    She cites downtime at online merchants such as auction site eBay and electronics store and sluggish performance at peak times for other busy sites as problems she hopes will disappear.

    "By Christmas 1999, it will be the exception rather than the rule for things to go wrong," Vanderbilt said.

    But her colleague Ken Allard warns consumers that for high-traffic Web storefronts, it's tough to test a site for heavy traffic before putting it online, simply because to get a complex Web site to work requires making many disparate systems work together.

    "It's very hard to predict the exact environment they're going to meet," said Allard, who advises Web sites not to introduce new features during high-traffic periods.

    "If there's a message to consumers, they should expect to continue to have problems in the next three years," Allard said. "It's not like opening up a hardware store."