SBJ/20091221/This Week's News

2009 holiday shopping: The power of E

Coming off the closest thing this generation has seen to a depression, the holiday shopping season is being tracked as an overall economic barometer more than ever. Even before the holiday shopping season, e-commerce had shown signs of life. The Department of Commerce reported that e-commerce sales grew by 1.8 percent in the third quarter to a seasonally adjusted $34 billion. E-commerce sales in the third quarter were 4.5 percent higher than in the second quarter of 2009, while total retail sales increased just 1.7 percent quarter over quarter.

So while it’s a positive sign that e-tail sales are growing again, in SportsBusiness Journal’s biennial online shopping expedition, we are much more interested in service and selection than in volume. As always, we shopped at the sites of the biggest sports properties and some traditional retailers as a measuring stick. Since we first began this exercise eight years ago, the league sites have closed the gap in selection and service. They are all serviced by GSI Commerce, and while your experience can largely depend on what items you buy, credit is due to GSI for an overall improvement. However, we found they still lag some of the largest e-tailers in key areas.

So, on the week after Thanksgiving, I browsed the Web on different days to complete my sports shopping list. Here’s the box score.

NFL.com

NFLShop performed well with
a customized Reebok 50th
Anniversary Pats jersey.

The first stop is at NFLShop.com, having already been advised by e-mail that everything at the site is selling at a 20 percent discount until midnight. Since it’s late in the game and I’m deciding to go for it, I venture to the New England Patriots’ team page. There are 44 versions of a Patriots jersey, and staying within replica jerseys helps keep the cost down. There is a lot of flash to choose from, but I go old school, with a customized version of Reebok’s Patriots AFL 50th Anniversary  replica white jersey. Unlike the Pats in Indy and most of this year, I was able to convert on this one and my drive continues. Since most NFL action is consumed on TV, the “home tailgating” category has exploded, and, with it, specific products for that activity. I chose a New York Giants tray, sturdy enough for parking lot use. Give the intelligence within the site credit for suggesting that I also buy a matching Giants salt and pepper shaker. Of course, that would cost more than the tray.

I am hoping to try NFLShop’s overnight delivery capabilities but when I call I’m told neither the tray nor anything customizable can be sent overnight. The checkout page tells me I can expect my item(s) within nine to 13 business days and that there is no way to expedite.

Ready to pay, I notice that Visa, a longtime NFL sponsor, is now much better integrated into the site. When you get to the checkout page that asks for a payment method, not only does it have a Visa card on it, it is a picture of an NFL Extra Points Visa card; Visa is also the first brand listed in pulldown menus. In past years, that wasn’t the case.

I’m told to expect the tray between Dec. 7 and Dec. 11. It arrives Dec. 4. The jersey is supposed to arrive between Dec. 10 and Dec. 16. It arrives Dec. 8. A customized jersey made and delivered to my door in nine days. My other attempts at buying customized licensed apparel won’t be nearly this easy.

GRADE A-

MLB.com

Shopping on MLB.com resulted in
confusion over delivery timetable.

It is Cyber Monday, a day in which orders at GSI’s 100-plus e-commerce sites peaked at 789 in a single minute, an increase of 60 percent over 2008.

The Red Sox fans I know include an editor who will work on this story, so I am looking hard for unusual items bearing the traditional “B.”

There is a Red Sox screwdriver set from ProMark marked down $2. I add a Jonathan Papelbon bobblehead and a Sox nightlight to ease the slumber of those fans tossing and turning while the Yankees grab another front-line player. For equal time, there needs to be a Yankees championship T-shirt. Hmmm, there are only 40 to choose from! The claim that a Majestic product was the “2009 World Series Champions Official Club House Long Sleeve T-Shirt” is a bit specious, but it looks good.

I pay an extra $17 on a $67 order for overnight shipping, but as I check out, the screwdriver gets a notation: “Arrival dependent upon the shipping method selected.” Um, but I already selected it.

I get a package the next day, but it only has two items: the nightlight and the bobblehead. I call GSI and am told that it clearly says when I ordered the screwdriver: “Leaves warehouse in 3-4 days.” True enough, but when I checked out, I got an altogether different message: “Arrival dependent on shipping method selected.” I guess shipping overnight doesn’t change much. Five days later, I get an e-mail telling me all my items have shipped. The screwdriver shows up the next day, and the Yankees T-shirt the day after. The shirt is packed so poorly that it comes with a collection of creases that may make it unsuitable even for Yankees fans who have been trying earnestly to convince me that “nine years really was a long time between championships.” It takes eight days in total for an “overnight” delivery of all items.

GRADE C-

NIKESTORE.com

For all of Nike’s design and marketing acumen, their e-commerce service over the years has been mixed. However, the Swoosh remains the top sports brand, so I click over to NikeStore.com, which is colorful and has a unique design.

I pick a performance T-shirt and, while checking out, I face a difficult choice of shipping options. The least costly is ground service — four to nine days (!) — for $8. Too much time and way too much money to ground-ship a T-shirt, right? Next day air (defined as one to two days) is $24 dollars, while two-day air (defined as two to four days) is $14. That seems like the right choice. It is hard to understand why these terms can’t be clearer — if it’s a question of when the order is placed on a particular day, then they should tell me that. However, my e-mail notification was instant (surprisingly, not always the case with others). With “two-day shipping,” the shirt arrives the Wednesday after a Sunday order, inside an appropriately sized box with enough plastic bubble packaging that there were no wrinkles.

GRADE A-

This Lakers watch bought on
NBA.com arrives almost a week
earlier than expected.
An NHL hoodie arrived quickly,
but a Winter Classic shirt wasn’t
scheduled to leave the warehouse
for at least a week.

NBA.com

Like the other GSI sites, the NBA’s e-commerce section is uncluttered and easy to navigate. I note Celtics-branded Crocs cut from $35 to $9 — that is almost as precipitous a drop as Crocs’ stock. The au courant NBA apparel product is an Adidas shooting shirt that will be initially worn by teams on Christmas Day. So I customize a Bobcats shirt with the name of a friend in Charlotte. After adding a Lakers watch, the bad news comes at checkout: “You can expect to receive your [Bobcats shirt] item between 12/18 and 12/30.” Yes, this shooting shirt is a brand-new product, but that is way too ambiguous. I really can’t be told if I will get it in time for the holidays? To be fair, I can’t find any other site where it’s available earlier, so I order it anyway.

I’m told to expect the watch between Dec. 9 and Dec. 15. It arrives Dec. 3. However, as of press time, the shooting shirt was still absent. I call customer service and they read me what my invoice says — that it will be delivered Dec. 18-30. Not very satisfying.

GRADE C+

NHL.com

By the time I get to GSI’s NHL site, I began to see the advantage of the company controlling the sites of all the big league e-commerce operations. Because of a common interface, all the forms fill in automatically with a click. I start shopping — hmm, a licensed billiard triangle. I’ve only seen licensed balls and tables before. They’ve expanded their Winter Classic apparel line considerably. A thermal shirt looks good, but it leaves the warehouse in seven to 10 business days. Wow, are they manufacturing them or warehousing them? I take it anyway. I also select a Carolina Hurricanes hoodie and check out. Ouch, the hoodie could arrive as late as Dec. 23, that’s too close to Christmas to risk. I pay the extra $5 for two-day shipping and it arrives right on time — Dec. 4. The shirt is supposed to get here Dec. 18, which is after press time, but 2 1/2 weeks seems like an excessive amount of wait time for anything in a digital age.

Grade C+

ON TRACK

After four Sprint Cup championships, there should be plenty of Jimmie Johnson championship merchandise, right? On jimmiejohnson.com, there are 48 different “JJ 4x” championship products, from a one-half scale hood ($89) to silver earrings at the same price. However, the whole championship section is being run under a caution flag: “Please note items in this department are available for pre-order. Most orders will ship in approximately 2-to-3 weeks.” I can appreciate the honesty, but after three championships, how can they not have anticipated demand? That’s enough to send me to NASCAR.com, another GSI site. They have an exclusive Johnson T-shirt with a delivery time of six to nine business days, but it seems to be the same story across the Web — JJ championship product is in short supply. After paying $27 for a T-shirt, it’s time to look for bargains. There’s some Dale Jr. dental floss for less than $3 and a Dale Jr. remote control car marked down to $20. Again, I pay for two-day shipping. The remote control car and dental floss get there a day early. The JJ championship shirt arrives when they said it would. But again, a 13-day wait for a T-shirt? How slow is that pace car?

GRADE C

NASCAR puts me in the mood for a race. How about testing the delivery of a basic product purchased from retail powerhouses? Like an “EA Madden 10” from Amazon.com and Wal-Mart? Amazon is an odd hybrid, great looking and also offering a simple transaction.

One league executive wonders if others
can replicate Amazon’s efficient marketplace.

“Maybe the one place on the Web where people purchase without looking for the lowest possible price,” said  Sal LaRocca, executive vice president of global merchandising at the NBA. “We’re all watching to see if anyone else can replicate that.”

Amazon’s “Madden 10” game for Xbox is $50. I could opt for free shipping, but the expected date of delivery (Dec. 21) is worrisome, so I pay for standard ($4.98) and it arrives in four days — exactly as predicted.

Walmart.com is also a pleasure, but you have to create an account in order to purchase. Still, the Madden game costs the same as it did on Amazon, but shipping is a paltry $0.97 cents and I’m promised delivery in seven to nine days. The game reaches my door in three days. Also intriguing: Wal-Mart is the only site to include a coupon and a flyer; every other package contains only a bill. Has the advent of e-commerce meant the package is no longer an effective means of delivering marketing materials?

Grades
Wal-Mart A+
Amazon A

FOOTBALLFANATICS.COM

FootballFanatics.com works
with NFL teams.

A Jacksonville site that grew out of a traditional store, 14-year-old Footballfanatics.com now fulfills a handful of NFL team shops. The selection is impressive and the site is bright and easy to navigate. I’m looking for some Florida Gators paraphernalia, and there are 2,190 total items and 216 in kitchen and barware alone. Gators-logoed party invites anyone? I settle on a more traditional item: A pint beer glass commemorating the team’s 2008 BCS title. There is also a Gators jersey from Nike for a very reasonable $74.95. What I am not finding reasonable is the wait time: “THIS IS A MANUFACTURER DIRECT ITEM. THIS ITEM SHIPS ON OR BEFORE January 18.” Wow. A month and 17 days! Are they walking the jersey back and forth from Nike? I still order it, figuring it could make a delightful Valentine’s Day gift. Checkout is a breeze and free delivery for orders over $50 is nice. The glass arrives in an impressive three days. A short time later, my credit card has been charged for the jersey — five weeks early. When I call, I’m told “We have to pay the manufacturer.” My plea that no other site does business that way on customized items makes no impression on the service rep. However, there’s a happy ending, as the jersey shows up unexpectedly early on Dec. 17. Is it too Scrooge-y to say that an e-mail informing me that it was being shipped would have been nice?

GRADE B-

Based on this year’s virtual shopping excursion, there is still too wide a gap between the league sites and those from retailers. “That’s a perfect example of why 10 NFL teams fulfill their own Web orders,” said Steve Strawbridge, the former Philadelphia Eagles merchandising chief, now vice president of sales and licensing at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “There’s no substitute for picking and packing it yourself and the biggest retailers do that.”

Perhaps it is a matter of what’s central to your business. While any e-commerce site is dependent on service from its vendors, shipping times need to be more clearly stated and followed. Wait times of two to three weeks are just not acceptable in e-commerce, especially in a market with product as readily available as licensed sports goods. If you are going to make customers wait that long, offer updates, rebates and anything else to engage them further. Dell allows its customers to track the progress of the PC ordered as it’s built and through the entire shipping cycle. Having someone at a calling center read back the same delivery information just leads to frustration.

The service seems to shuttle back and forth on league sites, which probably indicates it’s more a function of the specific products ordered, rather than the fulfillment house. “GSI has been very responsive whenever we had any problems,” said Brian Jennings, NHL executive vice president of marketing.

However, while GSI and the like are busily investing in backroom technology, we’d still like to see them spend more time on customer service. If an order is late, find a way to make it up to me. The morass of vague shipping and delivery promises is still maddening. I can understand wait times for a product, but even if a customer is willing to wait, being told an order will arrive within a 12-day range is a sure way to send him or her back to brick-and-mortar retail. And that’s a big step in the wrong direction.

OVERALL GRADE B-

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