Online Shopping Emergency? Please Hold for a Human

Online Shopping Emergency? Please Hold for a Human
Online Shopping Emergency? Please Hold for a Human

As the days remaining in the holiday season grow fewer and fewer, frantic shoppers become even more frantic. Those who want to avoid crowds and long lines at local stores and malls turn to their computers to shop online. After all, the convenience is hard to beat.

But if shopping online will be more of a pleasure with some retailers, it'll be more of a headache with others.

Uh-oh, I Need Human Help

If you find everything you need at your chosen retailer's website, it has done its job well, designing a site that's easy to navigate and intuitive to use. But sometimes customers have questions and need to reach a customer service representative. How much of a headache will that cause?

The folks at STELLAService recently studied how responsive various retailers are. Here are some of their findings.

Phone Responsiveness

STELLAService found that during a particularly busy time -- the period from Black Friday to Cyber Monday -- the time it took to reach customer service varied widely. Overall, callers were waiting on hold more than twice as long as they normally would -- and Cyber Monday was the worst, making the caller wait more than seven minutes on average.

Here are some familiar names and how they fared, in minutes and seconds:

Online Retailer

Average Wait Time

Nordstrom (JWN)

0:18 (OSTK)





Target (TGT)


Sears Holdings (SHLD)

1:22 (AMZN)


Gap (GPS)


Walmart (WMT)


Best Buy (BBY)



J.C. Penney (JCP)


Dell (DELL)

8:17 (KSS)



Sony (SNE)


Source: STELLAService.

Zappos (owned by and Nordstrom actually sported lower wait times than usual during this period, suggesting that they braced for extra calls and staffed up to prepare for them.

Email Responsiveness

As for email, most customers know that an immediate reply isn't common. Still, a reply within 24 hours seems reasonable, doesn't it? Well, STELLAService sent the top 24 retailers (according to 2010 revenue) a series of emails on Black Friday and the following two days and found that just four of them responded to all of the emails within 24 hours. Here are a few of the best and worst performers in the group:

Online Retailer

% of Emails Answered Within 24 Hours

Hewlett-Packard (HPQ)



Toys R Us










Best Buy




Avon (AVP)


J.C. Penney


Source: STELLAService.

Whether it's Black Friday or any other day, these retailers, on average, respond to emails within 24 hours only about 70% of the time. That's frustrating for shoppers, but it's also bad for business, as some shoppers with questions will take their business elsewhere.

Live Chat Availability

As an alternative to waiting on hold or sending an email inquiry, some retailers offer the opportunity to conduct a "live chat" with a service rep.

Out of the top 25 retailers (by 2010 revenue), STELLAService found that 56%, or a little more than half, offer live chatting. Apple (AAPL),, and Gap, do, while Best Buy, Macy's (M), Walmart, and QVC don't.

If you're thinking that isn't such a big deal, consider this: According to a survey by the E-Tailing Group and Bold Software, live chatting was the preferred way to communicate with retailers for 20% of respondents.

The best strategy for most of us when it comes to holiday shopping is to not put it off too long, lest we end up in a panicked, last-minute shopping frenzy. If that happens, though, know that some retailers are working to make your experience as hassle-free as possible.

Longtime Motley Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Walmart Stores,, and Apple, but she holds no other position in any company mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walmart, Gap, Best Buy, and Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple, Dell, Walmart, and; writing covered calls in Best Buy; creating a bull call spread position in Apple; and creating a diagonal call position in Walmart.

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