Practical Ecommerce

How 100 retailers responded to a mystery shopper’s Contact Us query

How do you respond to the customer enquiries through your Contact Us page?

Do you take them seriously? You may be leaving your customer’s money and their goodwill on the table.

A friend of mine has just launched a baby t-shirt product so out of curiosity and solidarity, we arranged that I would contact 100 US and UK baby retailers over the New Year break via their Contact Us page.

The retailers were either bricks-and-mortar stores with an online presence, or pure-play ecommerce merchants.

Both of us were curious to see what sort of response I’d get as a mystery shopper asking if they stocked a certain baby product, knowing of course, that they didn’t stock it yet. While this small survey is not statistically accurate, it does provide a straw poll of some online retailers’ (lack of) customer management.

1. Over one in three didn’t bother responding

Of the 100 online retailers I contacted, I received responses of varying quality from 64 of them. To date, more than three weeks later, I have not heard from 36 of them which has to be some kind of record. Why have a Contact Us page if you don’t have someone to deal with the responses? Five, maybe 10 I could understand, but are that many retailers leaving customers’ queries unanswered? Or did they go into a New Year hole?

2. Four in ten don’t use company email addresses

Of the 64 responding retailers, an astonishing 25 (39%) used Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, AOL or other free email accounts to respond to the Contact Us query. I am unclear if the owner responded via a personal account during the holidays or whether they just haven’t set up a company domain, but it doesn’t look very professional. I think this may be more common with those who are primarily small bricks-and-mortar retailers with an online presence than pureplay e-tailers, though.

3. One in three say they don’t stock it

Twenty-two of the responding retailers emailed me back only with a rather curt sentence, “No, sorry, we don’t stock it”. What a wasted opportunity to reach out to a potential customer. Of this segment, a further seven didn’t bother to write their first name at all, only a blunt signoff with their retailer name.

3. Half of those with auto-responders don’t follow-up

Only 15% (eight divided by 64) of the responsive retailers had auto-responder messages set up promising they would get back to me and only four of them emailed me back. I don’t want an auto–responder; I want a human responder. And don’t get me started on retailers who use no-reply email addresses – arghhh!

4. One in ten suggested a similar product

Nine retailers emailed to say they didn’t stock the baby product but that they had something very similar or to ask if I had looked at other items on their website. This is somewhat more helpful (although more so for them) but of course, it continues to frustrate the enquiring customer.

5. One in eight offer to get them in

Eight retailers – or one in eight of the responding retailers – actually wrote helpful, pleasant emails back saying they would look into stocking the baby product. My friend has already secured three of these retailers.

6. Four cited freight issues

Four of the 64 retailers said they wouldn’t be able to stock them because of the cost of freight from getting the t-shirts from Australia. That’s plausible, but wouldn’t it best to check first if my friend ships within the US and UK?

7. Two emails bounced

Two of the 64 responding retailers’ emails bounced, one from Yahoo, one from their domain. It’s worth checking you have enough capacity during the holidays as you don’t want to miss out on potential customer enquiries.

8. One lied outright

One retailer said they used to stock the t-shirt but didn’t anymore, This was a fascinating bit of fantasy-making as it is brand-new so it’s never been stocked.

9. One was quite rude

Not only did the retailer not stock the item, she said, “No, we don’t sell X, nor do we intend to.” Charming.

Treat everyone contacting you as you would a customer spending money in your shop. You never know, they may become an actual customer.


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  1. Rich Spaulding January 23, 2013 Reply

    Hi Elizabeth,

    Great article! Well done. Just goes to show you, great customer service is still rare. This article should give hope to new businesses wanting to compete against bigger retailers.

    In regards to response time, was there a big difference? I’m guessing some responded in 15 minutes while others responded in two days.

  2. Elizabeth Ball January 23, 2013 Reply

    Hi Rich, you’d be disappointed f you were dealing with them as only two responded in 15 minutes! Over half replied within an hour-24 hours, with the rest taking 5 or more days (one of which took 11 days to reply).

  3. Bill Brown January 24, 2013 Reply

    Easily finding the best price has created consumers that don’t appreciate personal service until something goes wrong. Hopefully, as the economy improves we’ll see more companies able to afford adding better customer service since they can raise prices to cover this expense. Unless companies are penalized for poor service with lack of sales I don’t see this changing.

  4. Zympatico January 24, 2013 Reply

    Same thing happens further up the chain too. I approached a local (Australian) wholesaler several days ago about stocking their pet products for my online store – I’ve heard nothing so far.

  5. Elizabeth Ball January 25, 2013 Reply

    Zympatico, that is amazing, you wanted to stock THEIR product and they haven’t got back to you?!

  6. Melissa Chelist February 11, 2013 Reply

    Wow! Unbelievable results! Many of my (potential) customers actually sound surprised when I respond to their inquiry or call them back. I agree with Bill in that some consumers don’t appreciate the customer service until there is a problem. It’s not ALL about the price.

  7. Elizabeth Ball March 14, 2013 Reply

    I agree Melissa, it really isn’t all about the price!