Don't blame the vendor

We've heard a lot of complaints from online shoppers about the various indignities they suffer at the hands of e-tailers. But it appears that these web retailers have a few beefs of their own about online shoppers.

We've heard a lot of complaints from online shoppers about the various indignities they suffer at the hands of e-tailers. But it appears that these web retailers have a few beefs of their own about online shoppers.

As we run an equal opportunity Gripe Line here, it seems only fair to give the seller side of the e-commerce coin a chance to register its complaints. My recent column on e-commerce holiday shopping horrors prompted one CTO to respond with his "reverse" gripes about the sometimes outrageous expectations or downright bizarre behaviour of last minute online shoppers.

Silly shoppers can show up at any time of year, but the CTO, whose website sells household goods and does more than 50% of its business in the fourth quarter, has found that the holiday rush brings them out in force. "The deadlines of Christmas and the holiday pressures just seem to bring more of them out of the woodwork," the CTO says. "People get less rational when it's for the holidays."

In general, the CTO finds that bad customers tend to exhibit a common set of symptoms. "They want [their order] at the lowest price, ideally below your cost. They want free shipping. They want it immediately. They underestimate transit time, despite a link on every page with a [United Parcel Service] map and delivery times. They don't read the Christmas ordering deadlines, despite being in huge, bold letters on the front page and on every item page," the CTO says. "And overall, out of all of the people that ordered after the well-posted ground shipping deadlines for their area, about 75% did need it for Christmas."

Desperate holiday shoppers are not always full of Christmas cheer. "I'm sure you've seen this on computer forums, but when people are anonymous, they escalate to [being] jerks much more easily," the CTO says. "They become much harsher." They also can become quicker to criticise when there is a real problem than they are to try to get it fixed. "Instead of emailing us or calling, we'll get a bad review." the CTO complains. "Really, we do want to help, but we can't if we don't know."

One customer gave the CTO's website a bad rating on Yahoo because he felt that a product he received was packed improperly. "The guy had ordered something from us, but I had no idea what he was talking about," the CTO says. "The product he was griping about was something he had to have ordered from someone else."

Customers often wait until it's too late for the e-tailer to do anything about their complaint, and then they go ballistic. One customer wrote to complain about an overdue order, saying that he wanted the order cancelled if it did not arrive that day and that he would sue the e-tailer if it charged his credit card. "This individual didn't email us until December 23, at which time I can't do anything," the CTO says. "A day or two earlier, we could have overnighted him another." The customer's credit card had been charged already because the product showed as having been delivered. The lawsuit was short-lived, however, because the order had actually arrived a week earlier and had been brought in by a roommate.

One frequent problem is the web shopper who wants to return a product that arrived long enough ago to have been used, such as the customer who wanted to return a knife sharpener a month after he had received it. "We asked him several times if it was new and unused," the CTO recounts. "Then he writes back, 'Quit giving me the runaround. I took it out of the box, looked at it, and decided I did not like the looks of it. I want my money back as you advertise.' The picture of the item is perfect, so I didn't really believe him." The CTO wrote back that the customer could return the product if it was unused, but if the company found evidence that the sharpener had been used, it would not issue a credit. The product was never returned.

Typos on the order form can cause all sorts of trouble. "AOL users had a disproportionately higher incidence of typos in their order forms, but users in general still had a surprisingly high number, such as incorrect email addresses, transposed ZIP codes, etc. If I don't catch [the errors, the orders] either have shipping problems or get returned to me," the CTO says. One shopper typed in the wrong street and then insisted he shouldn't have to pay the extra $US5 delivery charge because he felt the shipping company "had dropped the ball" by not calling to get the correct address.

I doubt we've even scratched the surface of the gripes e-tailers could tell about wacky web shoppers. I think a contest is in order; so I hereby call for entries for the First Annual EShopper Silliness Award. Winners will receive all sorts of wonderful prizes, unless our shipping department is backed up, of course.

Got a complaint about how a vendor is treating you? Contact InfoWorld's reader advocate, Ed Foster, at

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