Did Melding With Sister Sites Sour Customer Perception of Gap.com?

Allowing customers of Gap.com to easily jump to other Web sites in the Gap family, and put all their selections in one shopping cart, undermined perception of the brand and eroded user satisfaction, said the president of a company that tracks E-tail site satisfaction. The Gap's Web site has one of the lowest user satisfaction scores on the "2008 Holiday Top 40 Retail Satisfaction Index," a survey-based report from ForeSee Results. ForeSee President and CEO Larry Freed blamed the low score on diminished user perception due to well-intentioned changes to Gap.com. Freed said Gap's decision to enable Gap.com users to easily jump to the sites of its other stores—Banana Republic, Piperlime and Old Navy—and place all items in the same shopping cart, backfired. "Gap added some functionality to its Web site," Freed said. "The IT guys would say, `It's great. We added a feature.' But the reality is this is one of the downfalls in the Gap score this year." User satisfaction with the Gap site dropped nearly 7 percent when compared to 2007, according to the ForeSee report. Only the Home Shopping Network (HSN.com) sustained a larger year-over-year decline in user satisfaction (9.2 percent). CircuitCity.com, also near the bottom of the ForeSee site satisfaction barrel, saw a 5.5 percent dip in its score. Freed said that Gap's multi-site integration, designed to add shopping convenience and reduce customer shipping costs, had the unintended result of diluting the four brands. "Banana Republic has a very different place in brand perception than does Old Navy," Freed said. "The change had a functional advantage, shipping charges were less, and that sounds like a no-lose situation. But what they really didn't take into account was how people were going to see that: `Now you're making it very apparent to me. It's all the same company.'" The Gap's site has also suffered from some uptime troubles this holiday season. It went down for about 90 minutes on Cyber Monday and for another half-hour on December 26. Freed said he doesn't believe intermittent problems with a Web site, on their own, play a big part in consumer satisfaction ratings. He said user satisfaction is based largely on user perception, and he noted people are usually willing to put up with site glitches, slowdowns and temporary outages if they really enjoy a site and don't often encounter such problems. Freed used a brick-and-mortar store analogy to explain his theory: Shoppers at a disorganized, unfriendly and generally distasteful store will be much more irritated waiting 15 minutes for customer service than those who wait the same length of time in a store that has a nice atmosphere and friendly, apologetic employees. When it comes to Web site satisfaction, "What's more important (than actual performance of the site) is my perception of the performance of a site," Freed said. As for HSN.com, Freed thinks the slide in satisfaction was a simple matter of poorly executed E-tailing. "HSN really did very poorly in the price and merchandise side of things," Freed said. "Consumers were not finding the right products and didn't think the prices were appropriate." He did not know whether the 2008 version of HSN.com included any changes from 2007 that would explain the satisfaction slide. Others Gained In Customer Satisfaction At the other end of the spectrum, the ForeSee researchers found Hewlett-Packard's consumer-facing retail site, HPshopping.com, gain the most over last year in terms of customer satisfaction. The site climbed from a 2007 satisfaction rating of 71 to a new rating of 76. However, Freed said he could provide no explanation for the site's 2008 year-over-year boost. Topping the list of retail sites for satisfaction, according to ForeSee, was Amazon.com. Its satisfaction rating climbed 2.4 percent, going from 82 in 2007 to 84 this year. Netflix.com also scored 84, but that number was a 2.3 percent decline in satisfaction compared with 2007. Walmart.com and Staples.com were given 4-point satisfaction rate increases. The Wal-Mart site scored 78 while the Staples site came in at 77. "We've found that overall satisfaction with the top retailers held steady from 2007 to 2008 (74 on the study's 100-point scale)," the ForeSee report said. "This is a fairly unexpected finding, considering that it takes place against the backdrop of probably the most dismal holiday retail season in online history." In fact, the report points out that while the overall satisfaction score didn't change, more than a third of the 40 online retailers that were measured saw year-over-year declines in their scores.