‘Tis the season to shop online

Online%20shoppingThe Christmas shopping rush is here again but, instead of hitting the high streets, people are taking the more leisurely approach of sitting at their computers, taking time to research the best bargains

With the festive season starting in earnest, consumers’ thoughts are turning to gifts to purchase for friends and family. And once again, as expected, online Christmas shopping looks set to smash all previous records. Christmas presents are a great opportunity for e-retailers to increase their share of spend at the expense of the high street – although customer service and satisfaction remain key.

A pan-European survey from digital marketing company eCircle showed that almost 65% of consumers in the UK are looking to avoid the tinsel-laden stores this year – an increase of over 4% on last year and a clear sign that consumers are happier than ever to emigrate online for the festive season.

The poll puts Amazon as the UK’s favourite online retailer, with 61% of the survey base identifying it as first choice for online retail – still leading the pack after 12 years. Other online entertainment stores have maintained their position in the top ten with Play.com, HMV.co.uk and CD Wow all set for a healthy Christmas.

But the undeniable king of Christmas retail looks set to be the ever-present Argos. At the beginning of the year online sales grew by almost six times more than shop transactions, and online now accounts for about 20% of the business. But this, coupled with an ad campaign that eschews the delights of online retail, has done nothing to harm the store’s offline performance. When it comes to the high street, nearly 70% of people surveyed said that their Christmas cash would be spent in Argos, followed closely by Woolworths and Marks & Spencer.

Argos has taken the principles of old-fashioned customer service and sticking with a formula that works into the online arena. Paired with a raft of highly targeted e-mail communications, the retailer has entered the digital sphere with a carefully co-ordinated splash. Tesco, HMV, Next and Littlewoods are the only other online giants with such an established offline history.

Moreover, as research carried out by the Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG) and eDigitalResearch shows, overall customer satisfaction when buying online is high at 78%. The e-Customer Service Index is based on responses from 2,800 consumers who regularly shop online via Maximiles-owned ipoints.co.uk. Figures show that 80% of respondents were satisfied with the navigation of websites they purchased from, 84% were happy with the range of products available and 76% were pleased with product information.

With e-retailers priding themselves on their competitive price, it is not surprising that 80% of shoppers surveyed were happy with the price of products sold online. Interestingly, despite previous consumer fears about providing personal financial information online because of possible fraud, confidence in the security offered was high at 76%. The lowest figures from the index relate to customer service: those pleased with the response to an e-mail or telephone call was 73%, and those happy about being able to find help online in response to a query stood at 76%. While these figures aren’t poor they do communicate that e-retailers need to continue to improve their approach to customer service.

The most popular products consumers prefer to buy online according to the index are books, CDs, music, games, videos/DVDs and software, with 76% choosing to buy via this channel; while 69% opt to buy travel products over the internet; and 52% consumer electronics. For gift purchases 43% preferred to buy online. The index revealed that online shoppers who prefer to buy food, drink and household supplies online increased by 4% to 25% from June to October, while furniture, DIY and gardening increased from 22% to 25% over the same timescale.

And, according to eCircle, it is not just the British who are increasingly shopping on the internet. Whether consumers are saying “Happy Christmas”, “Joyeux Noel”, “Buon Natale” or “Fröhliche Weihnachten” this year, the likelihood is they will be doing more online Christmas shopping than ever. Of the French, the German, the British and the Italians, the Germans are set to be the most Web-friendly with 68% saying they will be shopping for presents online. The British are close behind with 64.6%.

And interestingly, the British are far more likely to research their Christmas purchases online at price comparison sites, while our German counterparts go straight to the manufacturer’s website. Meanwhile the Italians and French are lagging behind slightly, with only 50% of French presents being bought online and even less, 22%, of Italian Christmas presents bought online.

Not even a turbulent year for the British postal service has slowed the ascent of e-tail. It seems that not even Royal Mail strikes throughout the year have dented confidence in delivery services. Indeed, the IMRG index, which was collated during strike action in October, still showed satisfaction with delivery of products purchased online – it stood at 80%.

And, according to eCircle, not only is predominantly Royal Mail-handled online shopping on the rise, when it comes to simply saying “Happy Christmas” to loved ones a card through the post is still the gesture of choice. Following the year which saw social networking grip the nation, it seems that an old-fashioned Christmas card still beats a festive “poke” – 85% of Brits will still send Christmas cards this year, compared with the 6% who will use e-mail or social networking sites. In fact, the popularity of the Christmas card is a very British phenomenon – only the Germans come anywhere as close to sending as many, just 47% will send greetings via post. And the ritual of the Christmas Day phone call lives on. At least 52% of British will still phone home to wish festive tidings. Some things never change. 

Volker Wiewer, chief executive of eCircle, and Robert Barker, chief operating office at ipoints.co.uk, contributed to this week’s Trends insight

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