Big Problems Overshadow Big Numbers for Online Shopping

(San Jose Mercury News/MCT) -

The online shopping industry may have been a victim of its own success this year-end shopping season.

With aggressive promotions and optimistic delivery promises, business from shoppers rose sharply for online retailers, and shippers such as United Parcel Service. But fumbled orders and presents delivered after deadlines left customers angry and revealed that the e-commerce industry may not be prepared for the demands of the growing number of savvy internet shoppers.

“If we say something will arrive by a certain date, it had better be there,” said Stormy Simon, co-president of the e-commerce discount site Overstock.com.

In the new year, UPS and e-retailers say they will assess where to make changes for the next year-end shopping season. The wiggle room for these types of mistakes is limited; the e-commerce industry becomes more competitive with every year-end shopping season.

“They can’t disappoint anymore,” said Sucharita Mulpuru, an e-commerce analyst for Forrester Research. “If they don’t change, it’s only going to get worse.”

For now, e-retailers and shipping companies are pointing fingers at each other. Retailers are also trying to regain the trust of consumers who, despite their frustrations, aren’t likely to shop online any less.

“UPS had some extreme difficulties this year, but when consumers think of it, they think of the brand: Overstock,” Simon said. “So we have to make it right, with or without UPS.”

Simon said some packages from Overstock that shipped through UPS were delayed, and the company is giving refunds and credits to customers – a lesson in how expensive shipping delays can be.

Faced with the shortest year-end shopping season in 11 years, e-commerce retailers tried to redirect last-minute spending away from the malls and onto the web. As late as last Sunday, Amazon was promising free shipping for Tuesday. And Toys R Us customers could place web orders until 11 p.m. on that Monday, with Tuesday delivery guaranteed.

In what may have been the final undoing of UPS’s plans, in the week before Dec. 25th, Amazon signed up more than a million new members for its Prime service, which guarantees two-day delivery.

“That is a problem for shippers. A million new people signing up at the eleventh hour to get free and fast shipping…?” Mulpuru said. “That is crazy. And that is unprecedented volume.”

UPS ended up with more packages than it could fit on its planes – 132 million during the week of Dec. 25, said spokesman Tyre Sperling.

“The demand was greater than we had forecast,” Sperling said. “We attribute it to the shift to online shopping.”

To avoid a repeat next year, some retailers, including Best Buy, are pushing for more customers to pick up their online orders in stores. Some experts expect same-day courier services such as Google Shopping Express and eBay Now to take on a larger role, and still others say retailers, particularly the smaller ones, need to know their limits.