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Will Online Stores Scrooge Their Customers?

The rush to upgrade services by e-commerce sites seeking to capitalize on the coming holiday shopping season may leave a number of online shoppers feeling scrooged this Christmas, according to researchers at Computer Economics.

"The attraction of the Internet is the convenience of at-home shopping, but many online stores will destroy that sense of convenience this Christmas," said Computer Economics senior research analyst Catherine Huneke.

"New features will be added quickly in the next few weeks, but the bugs will not have been smoothed out before crowds of customers come to the sites."

For example, some of the latest features added by major online retailers include 3D clothes models, "communal" shopping, and instant customer service.

In a test of several Web sites, Computer Economics found that most 3D clothes models are extremely slow to download and do not simulate trying on clothes in a brick-and-mortar store.

"The 'communal' shopping tools we tested were supposed to allow us to chat and surf with someone at another computer, but the chat cluttered the screen and the tandem surfing failed to work properly," Computer Economics said.

"As for instant customer service that is designed to help you as you surf, we were unimpressed. Most of the customer service representatives did not know the sites well and failed to assist us with problems."

"Customers who have been waiting for improvements in shopping online will be excited to try some of these new features this Christmas, but they will be quickly disillusioned," said Huneke.

"Their disappointment and frustration with poorly designed features will translate into fewer shopping dollars for the Web this season."

To help consumers who run into online shopping problems between now and the holiday season, Computer Economics said it has established its own Internet Shopping Complaint Hotline. Callers to the hotline receive help on taking a course of action to solve their customer service difficulties.

On the Internet Shopping Complaint Hotline, Computer Economics assists consumers in finding a third-party arbitrator or mediator and filing formal complaints against online companies with poor customer service.

To access the hotline, consumers may call 800/326-8100 ext. 133 or e-mail complaints to shopping@compecon.com.

Computer Economics is an independent research firm specializing in helping IT decision-makers plan, manage, and control IT costs through advisory services, analyst support, its Web site and printed reports.