SBJ/December 19 - 25, 2005/Other News

The sites before Christmas

Pick almost any consumer category and Wal-Mart is the undisputed sales leader. It’s the largest company in the world, based on total revenue, and the largest private employer in North America. But this time, it may have overreached its limits: Wal-Mart is insisting that it controls the calendar.

“I know you paid for overnight shipping,” says an unsympathetic agent I called at Walmart.com to ask why the $60 item I paid an additional $20 to ensure overnight shipping for didn’t arrive for five days. “When we say overnight, we mean from the time we process the order.”

Chicago Blackhawks Personalized Practice Jersey
Date Ordered:
11/26
Date Received:
12/6
Overall Site Grade:
B-
Overall Service:
A

This kind of dedication to company policy doesn’t surprise me. When the Madden NFL 2006 video game I ordered from the nation’s biggest retailer originally didn’t arrive overnight, I called to ask for an adjustment to my charge. I was told one couldn’t be made until the item arrived. Sure, we already knew it wasn’t getting there on time and $20 versus $0.89 for standard shipping is a considerable difference, but Wal-Mart wasn’t budging until the item was at my door. When it did arrive five days after it was ordered, they were engaging in doublespeak worthy of “1984”: Overnight is what we say it is, regardless of what your calendar says. After five minutes of arguing, they relented — and a refund is in process. This is customer service?

It’s the third online shopping expedition of the past seven years for this reporter, and it is designed to test the ease of ordering licensed sports products online during the holiday crunch. As I settle in at home in front of my trusty Dell PC, I browse a wide variety of sites, including the shopping sections of some of the four big leagues. My first gift idea is easy, what better selection than the top video game in Madden 2006 for the new XBox 360 platform from Wal-Mart? But it’s not so easy, as it turned out. Still, across a range of sporting goods, retailers and league Web sites, the Wal-Mart experience was indicative of an uneven level of service even at a time of unprecedented selection.

New England Patriots Personalized Jersey:
Date Ordered:
11/26
Date Received:
12/3
Overall Site Grade:
A-
Overall Service:
A

Clicking full the shopping carts....

I began where I assumed many online shoppers would — at Google’s front door. In the search bar I type in “NFL Jersey.” The NFL has so much money, it’s surprising it hasn’t paid for a link to appear on the results page. Amazon.com has, and so has The Sports Authority, as they are the first two listings.

Including the sponsored links on the right of the Web page, NFLShop.com is the seventh listing and barely “above the fold” on my monitor. But that’s where I want to go, and once I get to the NFL’s merchandise shop, I’m attracted by a blinking ad that features “ANYNAME” on the back of a replica jersey and $15 off through Nov. 30. I pop in an order for a personalized New England Patriots jersey and am immediately offered a Pats/Red Sox dual-licensed championship T-shirt — half price at $12.99. Nice cross sell. I put both items in the shopping cart. NFLShop.com has always been easy to navigate and sorts expertly by team or product. I keep browsing. Hmmm, a Minnesota Vikings “dynasty” plaque from Steiner Sports for $149.99. Funny, wouldn’t they have to win at least one Super Bowl before becoming a dynasty?

Boston Red Sox Personalized Jersey
Date ordered:
11/27
Date received:
12/2
Overall Site Grade:
A-
Overall Service:
A

The breadth of product is admirable on NFLShop.com, but somehow $72.99 for a cast-iron bank seems pricey. So I settle for the jersey and a Chicago Bears hip flask — $29.99 from Great American Products — for a total order of about $140. An e-mail confirmation arrives within an hour and I’m cautioned that personalized jerseys take two to three weeks, but it arrives a week later — a pretty slick job by Foot Locker’s East Bay division, which operates NFLShop.com. The flask also arrives, separately, within a week.

During our shopping spree two years ago, MLB.com’s e-commerce site was so bad that MLBAM head Bob Bowman called on the Monday the story was published to say he was changing vendors. Now it’s one of many sports e-commerce sites maintained by Global Sports Interactive, with Majestic Athletic handling fulfillment and shipping of customized jerseys.

Charlotte Bobcats Personalized Jersey
Date Ordered:
11/26
DateReceived:
NOT YET
Overall site grade:
A
Overall service:
C-

MLB used to worry about getting any shelf space as holiday time falls during its offseason, but this year it’s selling championship White Sox holiday trinkets. If you want to know what kind of effect the Red Sox had on MLB licensed sales, all you need to do is search on MLB.com for “Red Sox Jersey.’’ It yields 108 results. I select a $99 home replica personalized jersey, which includes free shipping. At checkout, I notice that despite the millions of dollars that MasterCard is paying to be MLB’s official payment card, it is not the default choice, a position NFL sponsor Visa did have on NFLShop.com. I am ready to check out when I receive a cryptic message “connection lost, some data may not have been transferred.”It turns out the site only works with Internet Explorer, so tough luck to anyone ordering while browsing via Mozilla. I switch to Explorer, immediately incurring a pop-up of Jim Kelly touting a gambling picks service. I close the pop-up and complete the order, and my annoyance is ameliorated by the fact that it doesn’t take the several weeks cautioned for the customized product. The jersey is at my door in five days. Nice work by GSI and Majestic.

Nike Sweatpants
Date ordered:
11/26
Date received:
12/2
Overall site grade:
A
Overall service:
C

Clicking onto NBA.com on the weekend of Black Friday, the post-Thanksgiving busiest shopping weekend of the year, the opening page is all about jerseys. There’s a nice feature that shows me the jersey with the name and number I selected for my Charlotte Bobcats jersey, which was slated for two- to three-week delivery. A quick scan of the sale section reveals a Boston Celtics 5th & Ocean Women’s NBA Pink Raglan Tee marked down from $27.99 to $9.99. I throw it in the shopping cart and check out. I experience the same problem with my Mozilla browser, but at least NBA.com tells me that it won’t work with my browser of choice: “NBA.com will not work with Mozilla because it has no common encryption.” OK. The T-shirt arrives in 10 days, but an e-mail tells me the Bobcats jersey is on back order. Must be a popular item for the second-year team. A subsequent e-mail tells me to call a toll-free number for more information.

The woman there won’t talk to me until I supply my home address — but shouldn’t my order number be enough? She’s equally distressed when I won’t give her my phone number. Then she can’t tell me when the jersey will arrive. Two weeks? Two months? Two years? “All I can tell you is that we’re out of stock,” she replies firmly. As of presstime the jersey had not arrived.

New York Giants Mock Turtleneck
Date Ordered:
11/28
Date Received:
12/5
Overall site grade:
A
Overall service:
A

I’m hooked on jerseys, so I click onto NHL.com, another GSI site. As a longtime customer, they had already sent me a catalog with my name ink-jetted onto the back of my favorite team’s jersey on the cover. While I browse, I see what’s NOT selling: Women’s replica jerseys from 17 of the league’s teams are drastically marked down. I keep looking and find a men’s Chicago Blackhawks practice jersey from CCM — for my money the best logo in sports. It’s reduced from $94.99 to $74.99. I’m forced back to Internet Explorer to check out, which is not easy, and the form wants far too much demographic information. Twice I uncheck boxes that would have allowed them to send spam. Again MasterCard is the league sponsor, but again it is not the default payment mechanism. My checkout takes 10 minutes, from when I push the “final” button to register my order. I’m then greeted with a customer survey, which wants even more demographic info. “Would I recommend this site to others?” Hmmmm, not sure at this point. However, the jersey does ship quickly — taking fewer than 10 days.

Not a creature was stirring, only a mouse...

Hoping a brick and mortar retailer will provide a better experience, I go to Google and type in “The Sports Authority,” which of course has the first link, but also the first two sponsored links. So I click onto sportsauthority.com, which is another GSI-maintained site. This shopping site is less cluttered and better graphically than any of the league sites, and I am immediately presented with some gift ideas. Not surprisingly, Terrell Owens jerseys are slashed from $64.99 to $24.97, but somebody better help this staff with its math — that discount is described as 20 percent off, when it’s more than 60 percent. For a sporting-goods retailer, sportsauthority.com has an impressive selection of licensed sports jewelry. Figuring that a brick-and-mortar retailer will always have overstock problems, I search their virtual sale bins and find a New York Giants mock turtleneck marked to $27.00, or $33.78 with shipping. It takes just over five days to reach my doorstep. Now that’s service.

Madden NFL 2006 for XBox 360
Date Ordered:
11/27
Date Received:
12/4
Overall site grade:
A
Overall service:
D

I do not want to ignore NASCAR’s recently completed season, and I click onto NASCAR.com. Somehow, I’m able to resist the lure of the Dale Earnhardt Jr. shower curtain at $34.99 and the Jeff Gordon dental floss dispenser at $9.99. Instead, I’m looking for something commemorating Tony Stewart’s Nextel Cup Championship. The demand is high — and the site states that all the Stewart championship T-shirts and caps are out of stock for two to three weeks. Even on eBay, a guy is selling promises of the shirts. Maybe Tony Stewart’s own site will have something for me? Well, it is perhaps the least e-commerce friendly of any site — charging a 10 percent restocking fee on any return — but I do find a die-cast and a T-shirt for $33. I’m warned it will be two to three weeks for delivery, so I am delighted when it arrives in 10 days.

Nike.com was the only site besides Walmart.com that was paid extra to test their overnight shipping capabilities. The Nike.com site is well-organized, uncluttered and easy to navigate, with a nice zoom feature on every product. I’m looking for a staple item, so sweatpants seem appropriate. These fleece ones aren’t dark blue, they are described as “obsidian,” which seems very Nike-esque.

Sold out in my desired size, I opt for some nylon “street heat’’ pants for $39.99. I’m immediately offered a matching top, but turn it down. Ordering is quick and efficient and — HOORAY! — Nike works with Mozilla. My overnight package arrives the next day, as scheduled, but before it even hits my doorstep, I receive a voicemail from someone at Nike.com advising me that one Francia Regeledo of Santa Clara Springs, Calif., has my package and I have received hers.

Tony Stewart ChampionshipT-shirt
Date Ordered:
11/28
Date Received:
12/7
Overall site grade:
C
Overall service:
B

The message suggests that I should call her and arrange a swap. I call Nike to politely tell them that is really not my job. They say they’ll get back to me. The next day I’m told that they will refund my overnight shipping, but I’m to seal up the mistakenly delivered package of two tops — and leave it outside my door for a UPS pickup. A day later, apparently saner heads prevailed. A supervisor called, informing me that I can keep the order I got by mistake, Nike will refund my shipping charge and has sent my original order overnight. The second time around, it does arrive on time, so points for rectifying the situation, but it is doubtful I’ll ever shop there again.

Final box score...

So what’s changed from two years ago? E-mails to confirm orders and note shipping dates are now routine, as is package tracking. League sites are better stocked and indexed, shipping difficult items such as personalized jerseys is quick, but generally speaking, shopping these sites online is still a not a friendly-enough user experience. In the case of retail brand sites, customers are already advocates. They should be treated with extra care, regardless of how they like to read their calendar.

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