Online sales are rocketing but, as competition on the web hots up, customer service is becoming ever more crucial. So can retailers’ web sites deliver the goods?

Mission: to buy food and drink for the party

ASDA
Web site and ordering: Asda’s web site can’t be faulted. It is straightforward and easy to browse, with plenty of information on the home page. At a total price of£35.42 for the order, it was also cost-effective in terms of price per item.

Home delivery cost:£4.75; there are different fixed prices for each day of the week.

Arranged delivery time: 5pm to 7pm, Sunday

Actual delivery time: 6pm

Delivery: the problems started when the contents of the delivery were unpacked. It would be hard to award green points to a supermarket that chooses to deliver only 15 products in six plastic bags.

Equally, having stated on my delivery form that substitutions were acceptable, Asda went the whole hog and substituted a third of what I ordered with other goods. Most replacements were fine, but some were less than satisfactory; brazil nuts were substituted for pistachios, for example. It’s hard to believe that a supermarket could run out of brazil nuts completely.

I also wonder whether a Sally Nichols in Mitcham received her shopping; regrettably, I was given her shopping list alongside the delivery manifest that came with my order.

Bags used: 6

Clicks out of 10: 6

OCADO
Web site and ordering: Ocado’s web site is very impressive. Registration couldn’t have been more straightforward and browsing was easy.

There is a huge range of delivery options available, including late-night delivery, as well as an ecological option to choose one of Ocado’s delivery vans who are already allocated to deliver to your area. The web site asks the customer to help Ocado be more ecologically friendly: if you are not likely to change your mind about the order, you can tick a box to enable them to pack the vans more efficiently.

A delivery slot was available the next day; a negative was the fact that the minimum order was£40.

Home delivery cost:£5 for orders of less than£75; orders of more than£75 are free.

Arranged delivery time: 9pm to 10pm

Actual delivery time: 8.10pm

Delivery: at 7.55pm, a very friendly Ocado driver called to say that he was in the area and could deliver earlier if I wanted. He arrived 15 minutes later with all the goods, no substituted products, a summary of the order and a number to call if there were any problems. All perishable goods were separated into differently coloured bags and the driver offered to take the goods to the kitchen. Lovely driver, perfect service.

Bags used: 5

Clicks out of 10: 10

SAINSBURY’S
Web site and ordering: the Sainsbury’s site is reasonably quick and easy to navigate, although a grid-style display would be preferable because the scroll-down list format made browsing harder. The search engine returned a lot of results and took me to the page that I needed straight away. Inputting my details was quick and easy.

Home delivery cost: a flat-rate fee of£5.

Arranged delivery time: 8pm to 9pm

Actual delivery time: 11.05pm

Delivery: delivery was two hours late and I didn’t receive a phone call from the driver until 10.45pm.

Both pizzas were replaced with cheaper alternatives and the difference refunded. The lemonade and one bottle of red wine were out of stock and no substitutions were offered. Running out of lemonade seems odd and, strangely, they didn’t substitute the missing wine for a second bottle of the other red that I ordered, which was the same price.

When the driver eventually arrived he was polite and apologetic. Sainsbury’s was also quick to recognise that the service was unacceptable and posted me a voucher by way of compensation.

Bags used: 5

Clicks out of 10: 4

TESCO
Web site and ordering: Tesco’s web site is hard to navigate for the first-time user. Finding particular product categories and individual items is a challenge if you’ve not used the site before. However, the checkout process is easy, as is amending an order after it has been placed.

Home delivery cost:£5.75

Arranged delivery time: 9am to 11am

Actual delivery time: 9.57am

Delivery: fine. The driver wasn’t especially communicative, but he was friendly enough and on time. He didn’t offer to help bring the shopping in, though.

One product, cashew nuts, was missing, but this was clearly marked on the receipt and I was not charged for it. No substitutions of my products had been made and there were no issues with the condition of the goods that arrived.

My only gripe is the number of bags used – some small items were in a bag by themselves when they didn’t need to be, while boxes of wine, which didn’t really need a bag, had been put in carriers too. However, Tesco does give you the option of bag-free deliveries.

Bags used: 6

Clicks out of 10: 8

Mission: to buy an outfit for the party

TOPSHOP
Item chosen: fan-print dress,£38

Web site and ordering: this site has improved vastly since its relaunch last year. It is brilliantly quick, easy to navigate and simple to search by product group and style.

The design of the site is clever: it drags your eye down so you scroll down the page to the quirkier aspects of the site such as the Denim Shop, the videos and podcasts and the “Topshop daily fix” widget.

The site also reflects its offline brand well because it’s fun, loud and young. The Kate Moss ranges are extensively promoted and you can enter the Boutique area of the store and browse information on designers who are collaborating with Topshop. The amount of information on the home page makes this a destination online store that engages its customers with the true essence of its brand.

Once the results of product searches have come up, the useful “show all” option means that the browser doesn’t have to click through numerous pages and the size guide is equally comprehensive. A minor criticism would be that the clothes aren’t viewed on models.

The day after I ordered, I received an e-mail to say the goods were on their way.

Delivery options: express next-day delivery,£5, or standard delivery (within three working days),£4.

Delivery: the dress arrived four working days after ordering, via courier. It came with a clothes hanger and the quality was better than the photos suggested. The only slight downside was that the goods arrived packaged in a boring grey plastic bag.

Return: return is required within 14 days of receipt. An adhesive postage-paid returns label is provided, and the accompanying form also specifies that you can return it in-store. I took it to the store and waited in a designated and well-signposted queue for exchange and returns and the money was refunded to my card. It couldn’t have been easier.

Clicks out of 10: 10

Oli
Item chosen: floral babydoll dress,£25

Web site and ordering: this is a fun web site, but it is nothing spectacular and at times looks slightly garish. However, it has a great variety of products and delivery prices are clearly specified.

Search facilities are very helpful; you can search by brand, price, colour and newest in. There is also a useful lookbook facility, which enables you to save clothes you like and view them as a collection.

After I had ordered, an e-mail with the irritating title “You’re going to be a very happy bunny” arrived as confirmation. I was not a happy bunny, because the delivery day on the confirmation was not the one that I requested. A telephone sales adviser said that they couldn’t sort this out until the order had been processed. She also insisted that I had an account number when I didn’t. She suggested e-mailing them instead, which I did. A response arrived to say that my enquiry was being dealt with, but I did not hear back. When I called the next day I was put on hold for 10 minutes and had to listen to very irritating music before an adviser told me that the goods were on their way. However, they arrived neither on the day requested by me, nor the day stipulated by Oli on the e-mailed confirmation.

Delivery options: next-day delivery, or named-day delivery and you can select mornings or afternoons, at a flat-rate fee of£3.95.

Delivery: despite the item not being the delivered on the day requested, it arrived promptly, two days after it was ordered. Fortunately, my neighbour was in to sign for the package.

Return: customers are given 14 days to return their goods. You can either return products via their courier, free of charge, or pay to return them at the Post Office. A returns label is provided, but customers must pay for their own postage. The money was refunded very promptly, five working days after I posted it.

Clicks out of 10: 6

RIVER ISLAND
Item chosen: gold neck-trim babydoll dress,£39.99

Web site and ordering: this is a straightforward site that is easy to navigate. A drop-down menu makes each category clearly visible at a glance. It has a useful “view the look” option, which teams your chosen item with other products to give shoppers inspiration and potentially increase add-on sales.

The site is quirky, too; products literally hop into a shopping bag icon once you have made your selection. You can also sign up to an e-mail newsletter. However, it doesn’t reflect the offline brand particularly well and it contains little in the way of information on its home page.

Delivery options: 48-hour delivery,£6.95, or standard delivery (three to five working days),£3.95.

Delivery: an e-mail is sent the day after ordering, to say that the item has been dispatched and should arrive within three to five working days. Nine working days later, there was still no sign of the order, so I e-mailed customer service. They replied to my e-mail the following day to say they were assuming that it had been lost and they would investigate. Annoyingly, there was no phone number to call, so I had to rely on someone responding to my e-mails.

Three days later, they e-mailed again to say another dress was on its way. It arrived two days after that. I e-mailed to say that I was returning the item and requested that they refund me as soon as possible, which they did. They apologised for the inconvenience caused and offered me free 48-hour delivery on my next online order. Not receiving the goods at all was abysmal service, but a problem like this is not necessarily the fault of the retailer. However, River Island dealt with it well and the customer service was impressive.

Return: no freepost label or returns information was provided, meaning I had to e-mail again to find out what to do. Returns postage must be paid by the customer.

Clicks out of 10: 5

COAST
Item chosen: Bora short jersey dress,£95

Web site and ordering: this is an inspiring web site for the online shopper. You can search by occasion, garment, collection or newest in and garments are grouped by themes, styles and collections.

Like Topshop, the “show all” facility works well for quick and easy browsing of all of one type of product at a glance. The site has an ingenious zoom tool that lets you roll your cursor over the garment easily to view sections of it close-up. This gives you a far better impression of the material and cut of the garment than a simple enlarged image would. Alongside each product are fabric details and washing instructions.

The well-designed “style notes” page is a quirky touch, allowing shoppers to view the design director’s favourite products, for example. A wish-list facility enables registered users to bookmark goods that they would like to buy at a later date. There is also a facility that lets you log in to view the order status of goods.

This is a very comprehensive site that feels indulgent and reflects the higher price point of the garments. A minor criticism is the lack of delivery information on the home page. This is another site where you can only contact the retailer via e-mail, but in this instance the service was so good that contact wasn’t necessary.

Delivery options: standard delivery (two to three working days),£3.95, next-day or Saturday delivery,£5.95.

Delivery: it arrived at my work address three working days after ordering, beautifully packed with tissue paper in a Coast paper bag.

Return: Coast cannot be faulted on its returns system. It provides a ready-made returns form with an adhesive label. All you need to do is to tick the reason(s) why you are returning it and stick on the Freepost label. The money was refunded six working days after I posted it.

Clicks out of 10: 10

Mission: to buy something for the home

COMET
Item chosen: wireless microphone singing machine,£14.99

Web site and ordering: visually, this isn’t the best web site because it looks too busy and crowded, but it is straightforward to browse. Comet’s multichannel strategy is also specified clearly when ordering online: it states that it is free to collect from the store, which you can do within one hour, whereas delivery will cost more.

The site was slightly slow to go through to the secure site and again to process payment overall, but this is an efficient and informative web site. A receipt was e-mailed straightaway, enabling me to track delivery.

Delivery options: standard delivery (three to five working days),£5.95, or you can select specific days. However, selecting an approximate time on a specific day costs£7.95. Saturday delivery is also available.

Delivery: the package arrived at 8.45am on the morning of the day that I specified.

Return: a comprehensive leaflet accompanies the form to explain the returns procedure. You can return to store or phone to request courier collection. I asked for it to be collected from work and gave the helpdesk operator the name of our office building and postcode. I explained that the courier wouldn’t know where to go, because there are multiple businesses in the building. In true “computer says no” style, he huffily said that his IT system meant that he couldn’t input the name of the company on the form. After a lengthy discussion he agreed to add it in, but this dilemma had taken up my time and his, and his attitude was unpleasant. I was, after all, trying to save both the company and myself from having to deal with a missed delivery.

Up until then, Comet had provided a first-class service, but it let itself down here. However, Comet made two subsequent phone calls to ensure that the goods would be picked up on the day requested.

Clicks out of 10: 7

BOOTS
Item chosen: Polaroid One600 Instant gift set,£24.99

Web site and ordering: having originally wanted to buy a disposable camera, it was surprising to find that they weren’t in stock online, which didn’t get the shopping mission off to the best start. I then came across a Polaroid camera while browsing, which highlighted search engine problems. The gift set model didn’t appear if you searched for “Polaroid” – it only returned a result if you searched for “Polaroid camera”.

The checkout area also highlighted a few problems with the web site: it wouldn’t accept a hyphen on my e-mail address (a required field), so I had to use a colleague’s e-mail address instead. It was then unable to process the order. After I had spent 10 minutes on the phone to my bank, to double-check that it wasn’t a problem with my credit card, I had to re-order.

Delivery options: standard delivery (within four working days),£2.95, next-day delivery,£5.50, named-day delivery,£4.50, or Saturday delivery,£7.50.

Delivery: Boots redeemed itself when it sent me a text message, specifying that my order would arrive on the day requested. It arrived that morning, carefully packed and came complete with a gift card wishing me a happy house-warming party. A criticism is that it came in a box five times the size of the product and used an enormous amount of unnecessary packaging.

Return: Boots provided a returns note, with a Freepost label to return the product within 28 days. Two weeks after I posted it, there was still no sign of a refund, so I called Boots, who said that they hadn’t yet received my return. I was told that I had to post a photocopy of the certificate of posting to their customer care team.

I was finally refunded three weeks after posting my order back. It may not be Boots’ fault, but it goes to show the problems that can arise when shopping online. It would have been far easier to go the nearest Boots store and buy this myself.

Clicks out of 10: 5

JOHN LEWIS
Item chosen: 10 bead-ball line lights,£10

Web site and ordering: the John Lewis web site is excellent. It may not ooze style, but in terms of functionality, it’s second to none.

The home page is clearly laid out, so you can find what you are looking for straight away, be it products, information on services, delivery, order-tracking and returns.

Despite the fact that it sells a huge range of stock in many different departments, there is a whole section dedicated to outdoor lighting in all shapes and sizes.

The pages have a decent amount of product information, including precise product dimensions. As soon as you add the item to your shopping basket, it provides detailed delivery information, including the various delivery prices. Having already registered with John Lewis, the site has stored all the addresses that I’ve ever used. Delivery was even available the next morning before 10.30am. However, it is worth pointing out that named-day delivery is not cheap; it nearly amounted to the cost of the lights. Gift-messaging options are also available.

Importantly, the site gives visitors ways to contact them, including a seven-day phone line that is open until midnight, as well as a phone number to call if you are experiencing technical difficulties.

Delivery options: standard delivery (within three working days),£3.95, named-day delivery,£6.95, or next-day delivery,£9.95.

Delivery: it arrived at 12.05pm on the specified day.

Return: a full returns note is supplied and the information is clear and concise. Return is free, either by courier collection or via Royal Mail and you are asked to call John Lewis who will advise on the best option. You can also take goods directly to the corresponding department in-store and get a refund. I chose the latter and with no fuss and friendly customer service, the money was credited straight to my card. A seamless service.

Clicks out of 10: 10

CURRYS
Item chosen: Bellini chocolate fountain,£19.97

Web site and ordering: this is an informative site that is likely to inspire purchases with areas such as “big boys’ toys”. Reserving online and collecting in-store wasn’t an option for this item, but there is a wide range of delivery options. Currys sent me an e-mail that afternoon, to say that the order had been processed and the e-mail had a document attached containing after-sales and returns information.

Delivery options: prices vary on the order for both standard postal delivery (within five working days) and courier delivery (within seven working days; specified morning or evening slot). Saturday delivery is£14. I opted for standard delivery to my work address, which was£3.99.

Delivery: Currys called four working days after ordering to say that problems with their systems meant the order would be dispatched in two days. The slight delay wasn’t a concern, but five minutes later I received an e-mail to say that it couldn’t accept my order and I would be refunded. I called Currys and was put on hold for 10 minutes before they finally confirmed my order would be dispatched imminently. Baffling.

Return: I tried to return the product to a store, but when I got there, they told me that they couldn’t accept it unless I had a receipt number, which hadn’t been sent to me. I called Currys and was told a receipt would be e-mailed. I called again when it didn’t arrive and I was given a receipt number over the phone. Apparently, the order number should have been sufficient enough information in the first place.

I returned to the store again, where staff insisted I needed the receipt because I also needed an online branch number. After 20 minutes of them relaying personal details to head office, they agreed to refund me, providing that I came back to the store for a third time, when the e-mailed receipt finally arrived. There is still no sign of it and if it does I don’t intend to traipse back for a third time. Not one person that I spoke to seemed to have a clue about Currys’ multichannel strategy and the whole experience was very frustrating.

Clicks out of 10: 3

Mission: to buy party music

HMV
Item chosen: Mark Ronson, Version, CD,£8.99.

Web site and ordering: HMV has a search engine that is extremely quick and the design of the site encourages the shopper to browse. It also provides a facility that lets you request personalised e-mails to suit your music taste.

HMV sends a detailed e-mail confirming your order, which tells you when the order is on its way and calculates an estimated delivery date. When the bank stopped my credit card because of suspected fraud, HMV e-mailed me to say that a problem had occurred when processing my order. It wasn’t clear whether this meant that I needed to re-order, but fortunately I didn’t, because a CD was sent to me.

Delivery options: standard delivery (two to five working days) is free, or you can opt for Royal Mail special delivery,£5.

Delivery: the CD arrived four working days later, with no unnecessary packaging.

Return: no returns information was provided with the delivery. The returns section on the site wasn’t easy to find and I had to write my own returns note, referring back to the order number and requesting a refund. Postage must be paid by the consumer.

Clicks out of 10: 7

PLAY.COM
Item chosen: Mark Ronson, Version, CD,£8.95.

Web site and ordering: compared with HMV, this web site isn’t as slick, but it is nevertheless easy to search and navigate. Oddly though, when you add items to your basket, it’s not immediately clear whether you have added them or not, because nothing changes on the web site. It’s only when you go to the checkout that you can see the goods, which is why I accidentally added two. When I tried to remove one, it removed both and I had to start ordering again.

Delivery options: standard delivery (three to five working days), free.

Delivery: the CD arrived four working days later.

Return: when the parcel arrived, there was no returns information included. To find this out, customers have to either call a general number on the form, or go back to the web site. On the web site, you have to request a returns authorisation form, which is then e-mailed to you. You need to print this off and include it in your return, which is all a bit laborious.

Return postage must be paid by the customer. The money was refunded three working days after posting.

Clicks out of 10: 6

VIRGIN MEGASTORES
Item chosen: Mark Ronson, Version, CD,£8.

Web site and ordering: this is a loud, busy web site, but it is easy to search and draws shoppers in through the promotions on its home page.

It stocked this CD at the lowest price. However, as a consumer I would rather pay another pound or two than use this site over the others. It crashed when entering the address details, so I had to start all over again. On the second attempt, after entering personal details, an angry message appeared, stating: “Attention, some fields have errors.” After a lengthy process of trial and error, I eventually worked out that the problem was my surname, which has a hyphen in it. Apparently, the name mustn’t contain special characters. The site was also slow to process the payment, although Virgin redeemed itself slightly by e-mailing very soon afterwards to say that the CD would be dispatched the next day.

Delivery options: standard delivery (timescales vary for each order), free.

Delivery: the product arrived five working days later, with no unnecessary packaging.

Return: Virgin makes returns easy – you simply tick a box on a returns form and send it back via Freepost. The money was refunded five working days after posting.

Clicks out of 10: 5

AMAZON.CO.UK
Item chosen: Mark Ronson, Version, CD,£8.88.

Web site and ordering: this is an excellent web site that is exceptionally quick and easy to use.

Customers can buy the CD slightly cheaper if they opt for one of the 49 used and new products in the search results, starting at£6.93.

Having previously registered with Amazon.co.uk, I opted for the “buy now with 1 click” option, which I hadn’t used before. It was certainly fast and simple to use, but the downside is that you don’t know the final price (£10.44, including postage and packing and VAT), until you’ve paid for it. However, unlike Play.com and HMV, Amazon.co.uk does pay for return postage.

Delivery options: standard delivery (timescales vary for each order),£1.24

Delivery: the product arrived four working days later.

Return: unlike Play.com, Amazon.co.uk clearly specifies returns information on the order form that comes with the package. It’s not as easy as having a Freepost label included, but it is still efficient and simple. You visit the online Returns Support Centre and you are provided with a printable Freepost personalised returns label and barcode to include with the goods that you are returning.

The money, including the cost of delivery, was refunded six working days after posting.

Clicks out of 10: 9

The verdict
When online shopping goes according to plan, it’s brilliant. When it doesn’t, it is unbelievably annoying. Part of the problem is that online shoppers have a short fuse. Buying products online is supposed to be quick and hassle-free, so it is irritating if you have to waste time contacting a retailer’s head office to chase a delivery from River Island, a refund from Boots, or an elusive Currys receipt number.

This experiment has shown that online fulfilment still remains an issue. Although it wasn’t River Island’s fault that the goods never arrived and the retailer dealt with the problem fairly and efficiently, it demonstrates the problems that online shopping can cause – both for a business and its customer.

The countless lengthy discussions required to return a Currys product to one of its stores were verging on ludicrous. It should not require two phone calls and three visits to a store to get a refund. However, those retailers that got it right were the businesses that truly understood that the customer wants everything as quickly as possible – be it the goods or the refund. They were also the ones that made things easy. There were no questions raised when returning items to Topshop and John Lewis stores, in contrast to Currys. Simple extras, such as adhesive, postage-paid returns labels make a world of difference.

Yet there is always room for improvement. To receive carefully selected fashion items in a drab plastic bag takes the excitement out of receiving the purchase. In most cases, with the exception of Coast, there is scope to improve presentation and lift shoppers’ impression of the brand.

At times, the importance of retailers’ green agendas had also been sidelined: at Tesco, one bag contained simply a bag of crisps and nothing else. At Boots, the acres of protective packaging and the size of the box were totally unnecessary for a product that wasn’t particularly fragile.

To summarise, a poor experience in a store is not always enough to deter someone from ever setting foot in it again. Online retailers have significantly fewer lifelines and some fulfilment problems are more than enough to persuade most shoppers that a repeat visit is ill-advised.