Where Is the Quality in E-commerce?

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I have been buying most of my stuff (on the net) from Amazon ever since I moved to the US, in 2006. That’s probably why this thought/blog is coming now, after 3 years.

It’s about the quality, mostly about the customer experience in e-commerce stores. First, I have to say kudos to the handful of places I have had a good experience in – Amazon (and endless, AmazonFresh, windowshop etc.), eBay, zappos, BN and Netflix. These places make it easy for the customer – easy to choose, to place an order and easy to track or follow in case there is a need. It’s (most of the time) easy to use them (categorization, search, find more related info, edit orders, cancel, return – the whole deal).

However, over the last one week, I have had a “chance” to use a few other sites. Three of these were for techie/geeky t-shirts (which you won’t find, easily, in the aforementioned stores) – CafePress, The Ubuntu US Merchandise Shop and Zazzle (for Mozilla/Firefox merchandise). Maybe, I am spoilt by the bigger, better sites – but I did not find it easy to search for things, find more info on them on these sites. They probably did fine, but not great. However, the experience after placing the order is not nice at all.

The email I received from Ubuntu informing me that my order is complete does not have a single hyper-link. It does not even have a order number. It has the long UPS tracking number in it, but is it so hard to embed a link? And where do I go to see the details of my order? No link, no order number. They don’t have a picture of the T-shirt in the e-mail, so if I want to look it up to show to someone, I have to go to their site (the US one by the way, is harder to find). But if I search for the item by the name they sent in the e-mail nothing turns up. Horrified.

I did not sign up for yet another account at zazzle and checked out as a guest. And now, when I click on the “View Order Details” on their site, it asks me to sign in. They could have told me this before, and I probably would have signed up for an account right? So at this site too I can’t search for or easily find the item I ordered.

The e-mail from CafePress has a UPS link, but no links to their site or a “Order Details” page. Oh man, even here I can’t search for the item I ordered by the name they gave in the email.

Anyway, I’ll say that these 3 sites gave me a sound (not great) experience before checkout (although the post-checkout part leaves a lot to be desired). The extreme example of a poorly-designed site was The American Wedding. Ujwala was looking a site to order some more wedding cards (for friends over here in the US). There were a few sites which were just plain worthless. From their main page you could click on a card type (which will get you to the detail page for that card), but there was no way to start the checkout. No links whatsoever (maybe they do everything over the phone). Maybe they are just ads for a physical business, not e-commerce really.

Anyway, www.theamericanwedding.com looked like the best bet. We could select an invitation type from a good selection. Then came entering the text. You have to give the bride and the groom names in 3 different places! And the “sub-verse” that they suggested, violated their own rule of max 40 characters on a line for “sub-verses”. But the best – A form element called “Enter the first name of the bride and groom” – which has 3 text-boxes to enter (they are even numbered 1,2 and 3). Ok, they are asking for 2 first names, and clearly are expecting 3 different inputs. Hmmm. Guess what? Turns out Box #2 was for the word “and”! And then they ask “The name of the bride is in Line #” – {select 1 to like 50 from a dropdown}. And the same for the bride. Man!

After filling out all the details, there is no preview of which text goes where in the card. There are no hints as to which section is optional (left top text, right top text) – so if I leave out a section I don’t know if that will result in a blotch of blank in the card. Oh and the shipping was about $20 for standard ground shipping :-) (and I don’t know the post-checkout experience yet).

Now I think I know why Amazon/eBay etc. are where they are in the e-commerce world. Maybe the “invitation cards” industry specifically lacks good sites (which makes me wonder if it is easier to make a difference there), but it seems that most of the “e-commerce” sites are still in the 90s. It seems the internet as a whole has advanced light years ahead of it’s e-commerce children. “web2.0″ is a distant reality for now.