Online shopping is surging, with consumers more willing than ever to hand over their credit card details. But what happens once you've signed on the dotted line

This article appears in the February 07 issue of PC Advisor, onsale now in all good newsagents.

Buying a product in a retail outlet is a relatively painless experience, certainly once the last-minute Christmas rush and the January sales are over. Taking back a faulty or unwanted item is a quick and uncomplicated affair, with the biggest retailers generally accommodating in offering refunds or replacements. But can the same be said of those retailers' online stores? Two studies claim that once you've handed over your credit card details, the nicely-nicely approach to customer service goes out of the window.

The first, carried out by Marketing Assistance on behalf of consultancy Blast Radius, heavily criticises the UK's most popular online retailers for breaking delivery promises and failing to establish workable returns procedures. The second, by software supplier Transversal, slams consumer electronics suppliers for failing to respond
to customers' emails.

Delivery misery

Marketing Assistance singled out B&Q and HMV for special attention in its criticism of the UK's online shops. B&Q had several chances, it said, to prove its e-commerce credentials, but the first item researchers tried to buy was out of stock, while the second and third failed to arrive, despite advanced phone calls booking a delivery slot.

HMV, meanwhile, failed to deliver within 14 days of the first order, and within seven days of the second. In both cases the transactions were cancelled by researchers due to the excessive waiting period.

But the biggest sticking point was retailers' failure to provide adequate measures for customer returns. Despite offering the best online shopping experience, Amazon's returns arrangements left a lot to be desired. Similarly, Tesco was criticised for not including any returns information with the product, or in replies to the emails researchers sent relating to the purchase.

Apple, another of the top performers overall, let itself down by failing to address returns policy in documentation that accompanied purchases. Researchers had to seek out the information themselves. After a search on Apple's website, they established that customers needed to pay a transportation charge of £30 to return the goods – but the postage charge to send the goods had only been £4.50.

"The results show that investment by online retailers tends to focus on what they care about most, securing the sale," said Lee Feldman, Blast Radius' chief creative officer. "This attention is at odds with what the customers focus on, what happens after they have made a purchase. 'Service disconnect' is critical and reveals a short-sighted view of the customer based on immediate revenue collection where real value is gained from long-term relationships."

As well as ensuring delivery punctuality and a workable returns procedure, online retailers need to make a bigger effort to respond to simple customer requests, according to software supplier Tranversal.

The company sent emails to 10 suppliers and used the customer-service sections on their websites to quiz them about products. On average, it took 35 hours for suppliers to reply, with many simple requests such as 'what should I do if my unit requires service or repair?' going unanswered. Although many online retailers were able to respond quickly, the consumer electronics sector is let down by those that comprehensively fail to reply.

"Considering the huge sums of money that UK consumers are spending on gadgets, it's a disgrace that they cannot get fast answers to the most simple questions," said Davin Yap, chief executive of Transversal.

So, if you can foresee the need to stay in touch with customer support staff after you've made your next purchase, it may be wise to switch off the PC and take a walk to the town centre. You may have to queue, but there'll be a friendly face at the end of it.