"Just Another Medium"

iQVC says there is nothing special about the Net. Customer service is still key

When Internet mavens think of qvc, they may think about cubic zirconia or stretchy tunics peddled by Cheryl Tiegs. What probably doesn't come to mind is that many online merchants are eating QVC's cyberdust. Forget that dowdy image: QVC's Internet site, dubbed iQVC, has some of the happiest Web customers around. According to Harris Interactive's ecommercePulse survey of consumers using 180 e-stores, iQVC posts customer service scores of up to a chart-busting 9.5 on a scale of 10. Sales at three-year old iqvc, a subsidiary of Comcast Corp., will approach $100 million this year. "They are the poster child for how to transfer an offline audience to an online audience," says Harris Interactive Vice-President Benjamin D. Black.

KEEP 'EM HAPPY. It's all about taking a low-tech approach. iQVC fills orders fast, answers e-mail when it comes in, and makes shoppers feel comfortable with goods they haven't touched. The key may be that iQVC steers clear of technology that could make its less Net-savvy audience uncomfortable. "We were in e-commerce with TV," explains Steve Hamlin, a QVC vice-president who runs iQVC. "The Internet is just another medium."

The first rule of retailing is still: Know your customer, Hamlin says. About 70% of shoppers on both iQVC and QVC are women. So iQVC added special tools to help them. A big one: a feature called My Style Advisor that recommends clothes and makeup after women tell iQVC about their coloring, weight, and style. Says David Cooperstein, Forrester Research Inc.'s director of consumer e-commerce research: "They know how to handle customers who can't actually touch the product."

That's about as geeky as iQVC gets. The company shuns technology that doesn't fit its audience. For example, its computer section doesn't let consumers configure their own PCs, a feature nearly universal elsewhere. Another taboo: video that can slow down Web connections. Says Hamlin: "People want the shopping experience to be smooth all the way through."

It's the little things that make it that way. The Web site sells 80,000 items--including 30,000 the cable channel doesn't. iQVC also puts extra effort into prosaic tasks such as making packages show up on time. About 70% of iQVC's shipments come from QVC's three distribution centers around the U.S. But to make sure other shipments meet iQVC's standards, Hamlin's team manages hundreds of partnerships with distributors and manufacturers. The result: about 95% of combined QVC and iQVC orders are shipped within 48 hours.

Another way iQVC puts customers at ease is giving their e-mail top priority. Shoppers who zip off messages to iQVC get a response, on average, within four hours. A recent survey by Yankee Group Research Inc. found that on a weekend, less than 30% of leading e-commerce sites responded within 24 hours.

Taking care of customers isn't revolutionary. But for entrepreneurs who still think e-commerce is mostly about technology, iQVC's happy customers may serve as a wake-up call.

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