RealTime IT News

Shoring Up Consumer Confidence (on the Web)

To shore up consumer confidence in shopping online, merchant-assurance company buySAFE launched today the Shopping Advisor tool, a browser plug-in that displays security ratings alongside e-commerce listings in a search results page.

The new tool expands on the five-year-old buySAFE's existing business line, through which it has been partnering with merchants to give their online stores a security and quality audit. Those that pass the review can place a buySAFE logo on their sites, a designation meant to give shoppers confidence that they are buying from a reliable merchant in a secure environment. Many of the online retailers that turn to buySAFE are smaller companies, who are particularly sensitive to the problem of consumer confidence.

"The Internet's become the biggest shopping mall ever created," buySAFE CEO Jeff Grass told InternetNews.com. "But many people only shop at big brands -- or don't shop at all online. Consumers have trouble knowing who they can trust, who's going to deliver what they promised, and who's going to keep their information safe."

Although many experts maintain that sensitive information such as a credit card number generally faces less of a threat as it passes through an encrypted online transaction than in the legacy systems that many brick-and-mortar retailers still run, security concerns remain a principal drag on the e-commerce economy. Surveys routinely show that people would do more shopping online if they felt more confident that their information would be secure.

"Perception is really reality from a consumer perspective," Grass said.

Online retailers often use some type of community mechanism to build consumer confidence. Merchants on eBay (NASDAQ: EBAY) live and die by their feedback ratings. To a large degree, the success of online retailers' entrée into social networking sites like Facebook is predicated on the concept of the trusted referral. buySAFE is taking a more systematic approach.

To that end, the new tool will place a rating of one to four next to the 300,000 e-commerce sites that buySAFE has indexed.

The four criteria by which the new tool evaluates a company are: whether it uses a valid secure socket layer (SSL) to encrypt transmissions (a common security method often denoted by a VeriSign logo); whether the e-commerce site routinely checks for security threats; if there is a published privacy policy explaining how consumers' data will be used; whether buySAFE has audited and passed the site.

So while buySAFE claims to have indexed nearly all of the known U.S. e-commerce sites for the Shopping Advisor tool, only those that have submitted to its thorough audit will be eligible for the highest ranking. Grass said that buySAFE has audited and passed about 3,000 e-commerce sites, roughly 1 percent of those that have been indexed by the new tool.

In addition to placing the buySAFE logo on its site, once a merchant passes the audit, consumers have the option of purchasing a bond to guarantee their transaction. buySAFE bonds online purchases up to $25,000, at a cost of roughly 3 percent of the transaction price. Shoppers who buy the bonds also receive 30 days of identity theft protection.

The Shopping Advisor tool will display zero to four check marks alongside e-commerce listings retrieved through the search engines of Google, Yahoo, MSN and eBay.

The browser plug-in will also offer the Safe Shopping Portal, a search option that limits the query to merchants that have been bonded by buySAFE. Purchases made through the Safe Shopping Portal are automatically bonded and include identity theft protection at no cost. Merchants who derive sales through the Safe Shopping Portal will pay buySAFE a referral fee.

The Shopping Advisor plug-in will at first only be available for Internet Explorer. Grass said he expects to roll out a version for Firefox within one to two months.