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Some e-tailers still missing customer service boat

Online merchants are getting better at customer service, but some major online stores still don't get it, researchers say.

Online merchants

Gartner analyst Carol Ferrara says that with competition only one click away, poor service and support will drive customers to competitors' sites, which results in lost revenue and unfavorable recommendations.

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are getting better at customer service, but some major online stores still don't get it, researchers say.

Wal-Mart online is a maze, Williams-Sonoma makes customers fill out applications every time they shop, and KBkids.com automatically sends new customers its electronic newsletter, whether they ask for it or not, according to a report by Resource Marketing, a technology marketing company.

"Some merchants are making some scary mistakes," said Caroline Cofer, a spokeswoman for the company.

Many of the retailers that made Resource Marketing's so-called blunder list said they realize their need for improvement. Representatives for Crate and Barrel, Wal-Mart and Williams-Sonoma said they are busy making improvements to their sites.

Calls to KBkids.com were not returned.

"I'll be the first to tell you we are not giving our customers the service that they deserve," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Melissa Berryhill. "But I can guarantee you that's our number-one focus."

A reputation for poor customer service has dogged e-commerce from its infancy. Some Web-based stores have turned customers off with sluggish sites, unreliable shipping and unfriendly return policies. With more experienced executives and improved technology, however, online stores appear to be growing up, Resource Marketing found.

For example, the company said online retailers such as eToys, Lands' End, Beautyjungle.com and electronics store 800.com are useful and consumer friendly.

To conduct its research, Columbus, Ohio-based Resource Marketing sent 10 "undercover shoppers" in May and June to some of the most popular online stores, Cofer said. The shoppers then tried to duplicate consumer-buying behavior.

"They take every path that a consumer could or would take," Cofer said. "That includes signing up for sweepstakes, setting up accounts, interacting with customer service. We return some of the items to see how the stores handle that."

Some of the glaring problems that the shoppers found were that some e-tail sites charged customers to return merchandise, deleted electronic shopping carts that were idle for more than 30 minutes, and poorly stocked their virtual shelves.

The report found that some companies offer only a percentage of the products or services online compared with what is sold in the brick-and-mortar stores. For example, Crate and Barrel has a popular gift registry, but the Web site does not allow customers to set up registries online.

"Dumb luck if you don't live in a city cool enough for a Crate and Barrel store," the report said.