By Lisa Johnston
New products on display at the American International Toy Fair, held in N
Ann Arbor, Mich. – A sharp drop in online customer satisfaction, and improved service and deeper discounts at brick-and-mortar stores, has leveled the playing field between the two retail channels, a new study has found.
According the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), which rates companies on a scale of 0 to 100 based on thousands of consumer interviews, brick-and-mortar retailers equaled their online counterparts for the first time since e-tailers were added to the satisfaction surveys 14 years ago.
ACSI founder/chairman Claes Fornell said customer satisfaction with online merchants fell 4.9 percent last year to a score of 78 – a 12-year low – as “a spate of last-minute holiday purchases online, combined with inclement weather, left some buyers disgruntled by delayed shipments.”
The decline is mostly attributable to a big drop for smaller sites, including both pure-play and multi-channel retailers. In contrast, Amazon improved its customer satisfaction score by 4 percent to top the channel at 88, and Netflix’s score rose 5 percent to 79. Elsewhere, Newegg slipped 1 percent, to 83; eBay dropped 4 percent, to 80; and Overstock declined 2 percent, scoring a 79.
Despite the downturn, consumers still laud the online channel for its easy checkout and payment, variety and selection of merchandise, useful content, and reliable site navigation, the ACSI report showed.
Conversely, specialty brick-and-mortar retailers earned strong ratings for staff courtesy, store layout and cleanliness, and their selection of name-brand merchandise.
Top-scoring chains included Costco, up 1 percent to 84; Barnes & Noble, Lowe’s and OfficeMax, which tied at 82; Staples, which rose 3 percent to 81; and Sam’s Club, which remained unchanged year over year with a satisfaction score of 80.
Office Depot, which merged with OfficeMax last year, slumped 6 percent to 79.
“Mergers often lead to problems with customer service and reduced customer satisfaction,” said ACSI director David VanAmburg. “It is too early to tell how the larger company created from the Office Depot-OfficeMax merger will fare in 2014, or if Staples will emerge as the real winner among office supply chains in the battle for customer satisfaction supremacy.”
Lower-scoring chains included Best Buy, Target and Sears, which tied at 77, and Walmart, which came in last at 71.
“Discounting in and of itself is not necessarily associated with weak customer satisfaction, nor is high-end retailing a guarantee of the opposite,” noted VanAmburg. “Discount chains Kohl’s and Dollar General are both above average for customer satisfaction and are among the industry’s top four, while Macy’s, a traditional department store, comes in at the low end.”
Despite the overall increase in customer satisfaction at brick-and-mortar stores, “Diminished foot traffic at malls – along with a surge in shopping via mobile phones and tablets – indicates that consumers are increasingly embracing the advantages of online commerce,” Fornell said.
The ACSI rating system was developed at the University of Michigan and is based on annual interviews with some 70,000 consumers. Customer satisfaction criteria for retailers includes convenience, merchandise selection and variety, frequency of sales promotions, store layout and cleanliness, call center satisfaction, in-stock levels, speed of checkout, and availability of brand-name merchandise.
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