How do customers assess service quality of retailing websites?

Since the beginning of the 1990s, and with the advancement in global telecommunications technology, electronic commerce (commonly referred to as e-commerce) has really taken off. And online retailing comprises an integral part of this broader phenomenon. Here in the UK, as elsewhere in the world, traditional brick and mortar retail stores have extended their services through the Internet, adding new dimensions to the experience of shopping for consumers. New and exclusive online retailers have also sprung up to cater to the newly created demand by consumers online. Since this segment of the retail industry is relatively new and empirical statistical data not abundant, performing an analysis of how customers assess service quality can be challenging. As a result, it is more logical to study qualitative parameters of service quality as opposed to quantitative measures. This essay attempts to fulfil this objective.

Given the emergent nature of online commerce, it is a tough task for retailers to develop a website that meets all expectations from consumers. This view is supported by a survey conducted by UK’s largest e-consultancy Cap Gemini. The survey identified several key disadvantages for online shoppers. Some of these include “’Availability’, ‘Can’t be in to receive delivery’, ‘Premium charged for delivery’, ‘Can’t see or feel the merchandise’, etc.” (Quader & Quader, 2008) These are not trivial complaints by any means and despite the e-retailing industry setting foot into its third decade in existence, there are no satisfactory solutions found for these questions. Other complaints commonly associated with online shopping are the limited 6-hr window for delivery of products, cumbersome procedures for returning unwanted products, etc. While the survey found this disgruntlement from regular users of retail websites, there is another group of Internet users who do not shop online. As can be expected of this group, their concerns and complaints are not specific and direct as the first group, but rather more general. For example, they “’Prefer personal shopping, seeing goods’, ‘Credit card worries’, ‘Don’t know to navigate through retail websites’, etc” (Quader & Quader, 2008).

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Of the above mentioned reasons the concerns pertaining to online security is found to be most common. Although concerns about online security are valid, it is not an adequate reason for someone to shun online shopping entirely. It is believed that repeated reporting in the news media about credit card frauds, online banking thefts, etc have over-sensitized otherwise reasonable people into being sceptical. But today, there is robust security mechanisms put in place for shoppers using credit card online. And as media coverage of credit card abuse, misuse and associated risks reduce over time consumers will feel more confident of shopping online. Just as there are complaints and concerns, there are also certain redeeming features of e-shopping, without which the market share for this fledgling industry would not have risen to 10 percent of all retail sales in the UK in a short span of time. While a 10 percent share might look small at first, it translates into 12 billion pounds annually, which is no insignificant amount (Yang & Jun, 2008). The advantages that online shopping provides customers are listed below:

“Counter-balancing the disadvantages and the slow responses of many UK e-retailers in addressing them, there is a number of advantages for shoppers. First, in ranked order from Cap Gemini survey: ‘convenient/easy’, ‘saves time’ and ‘fits in with other activities’. Other commonly cited advantages, typified by responses to other surveys: ‘breadth and depth of products’, ‘prices favourable’ and ‘convenient’. According to the same survey, ‘cost effectiveness’ (rather than just low prices) is the key reason for shoppers to buy online, followed by convenience and ease of purchase.” (Bharadwaj et, al., 2007)

But beyond the nitty-gritty of online shopping and the attendant customer likes and dislikes, there is the crucial factor of ‘e-retail image’. Just as regular brick-and-mortar retail stores build their brand value over a period of time and through excellence in service quality, so do online retailers. And this e-retail image is built through excellence in several quality measures as discussed below. The first such quality is ‘fulfilment/reliability’, which translates into accurate and detailed display and description of a product so that what customers receive is as close as possible to what they perceived they ordered. This quality aspect is unique to online retailers and hence it is important that they focus on this service quality parameter. Reliability also entails delivery of the correct product within the stipulated time period. Punctual delivery of purchased products can be very crucial to developing e-retail image. (Bharadwaj et, al., 2007)

Another important area where e-retail image could be built is through the user interface of the website. The thing of foremost importance to the consumer is easy navigability through the website. As surveys have repeatedly shown the process of information search within the website should be quick, accurate and reliable. These days customers have come to expect ‘personalization’ or ‘customization’ of the website according to their individual needs. This usually means giving regular customers username and password and allow them to change the settings as per their preferences. Such privileges can also help retail companies in gathering consumer data, which can come handy in devising future marketing strategies. (Yang & Jun, 2008)

Studies have also shown that online customers expect prompt and proper customer support. They also expect to have choices in the form of availing telephone hotlines, online chat support, email support, etc. And the customer support personnel have to be polite, respectful, willing to help and assist. He/she should also have adequate knowledge of the e-retailing processes adopted by the company so that customers’ queries can be answered. (Bharadwaj et, al., 2007)

And online retailing companies will do well to devise strategies to widen their market. As scholarly literature on the subject shows, customers who shop online on a regular basis are comfortable with what this medium offers and are likely to be loyal, long term customers. The most difficult part is establishing that loyalty. That is why separate efforts have to be made to woo potential customers. It should be remembered that the criteria for evaluation of service quality can be different for existing and potential customers, with the latter expecting more. But irrespective of which category of customers the company is trying to cater to, the following set of six underlying service quality attributes is imperative:

“These are identified as: reliability, access, ease of use, personalization, credibility, and security. Seven dimensions were uncovered for the Internet non-purchasers (potential customers): security, responsiveness, ease of use, availability, reliability, personalization, and access. Upon close examination of these factors, it can be inferred that the two groups share much common ground considering the dimensions of reliability, personalization, security and access are important attributes. As predicted, there still exists several different attributes perceived by the two groups, except for the slightly different content for each similar dimension, two dimensions, availability and responsiveness are unique to Internet non-purchasers.” (Dennis & Fenech, 2004)

If all these criteria are met then the retailing websites will retail existing customer s and add new ones. The efforts made to satisfy customers increases their loyalty and helps in retaining them. As mentioned before, the realities of e-commerce industry are emergent and as a result the criteria for evaluation service quality also tends to be ephemeral. Moreover, studies conducted so far have been quite generic, in that they do not distinguish between segments within the retail industry. For example, the shopping experience with online book retailer www.amazon.com would be quite different from other speciality websites. And what is an advantage with respect to one domain can be a disadvantage when it comes to another. For example, one of the reason clothing stores have not taken off in the Internet is because women want to feel and try out the clothes that they are purchasing, which is not possible through the Internet. On the other hand, for a book retailer like Amazon, the Internet business model works perfectly, as it is the content of the book and not its physical and aesthetic appeal that is most important. In this context, websites should be specialized while at the same time adhering to core service quality values. In other words,

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