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For all of the simple and elegant ways Apple makes our lives easier as consumers, the world’s largest tech company seems to be going out of its way to confuse shoppers when it comes to buying an iPhone online.
There are currently numerous online retailers that sell the original iPhone 4 (or at least it looked that way at first glance). With the iPhone 4S going on sale this Friday (and pre-orders already breaking records), we wanted to find out firsthand which retailers serve as the best destination for purchasing an iPhone over the Web.
Given Apple’s recent crack-down on brick-and-mortar stores not officially authorized to sell Apple products, as well as reports of fake iPhones hitting the online market, we think it’s even more important to provide consumers with better guidance on this critical buying decision.
Surprisingly, the root of the confusion around buying an iPhone online lies with Apple. The company makes it abundantly clear which online retailers are “Authorized Resellers” for Apple’s most popular items, such as the iPod and iPad, but there is somehow one product category conspicuously missing from the Authorized Reseller chart: iPhone.
First, we evaluated Apple’s Authorized Resellers list (shown above). None of the Authorized Resellers actually sell the iPhone 4 over the Web (we define “selling over the Web” as being able to purchase the phone and having it shipped to you). At first glance, it looked like Amazon.com, Target.com and Frys.com sold the iPhone, but a deeper dive into each site confirmed that they do not.
Amazon.com: iPhone’s are only sold through marketplace sellers, not Amazon.com.
Frys.com: iPhone’s are only sold through physical store locations, not via the Internet.
Next, we checked stores from the Internet Retailer’s Top 100 list that appeared to sell iPhones but were not listed on Apple’s Authorized Reseller list. We uncovered seven additional online stores that initially seemed to sell iPhones, but further investigation highlighted wrinkles with each site.
Newegg.com: sells a limited selection of “no contract” phones.
Etronics.com: sells a limited selection of “no contract” iPhone 3G’s (yet all are out of stock).
Walmart.com: iPhone’s are only sold through physical store locations, not via the Internet.
Sears.com: iPhone’s are only sold through marketplace sellers.
O.co (AKA Overstock.com): sells a limited number of “no-contract” iPhone 3Gs (refurbished)
BestBuy.com: a genuine online reseller of the iPhone…? Not so fast – see below.
Finally, we looked at BestBuy.com, which claims to be an Authorized Reseller of Apple products.
This is where things really get confusing.
Despite a clear message on BestBuy.com that the iPhone 4 (and iPhone 4S) are available for sale through the site as an “Authorized Reseller” of Apple products, Apple’s site does not recognize BestBuy.com as an Authorized Reseller. You could argue that Best Buy is a big enough brand that it does not require cross-referencing on Apple’s site, but if that’s the case, why is Amazon.com, the world’s largest Internet retailer, listed on Apple’s site?
Making matters more complex, not all iPhones 4 models are available for purchase (with shipping and delivery) through BestBuy.com. Can you have it shipped (free shipping), or do you have to pick it up in-store (IN STORE ONLY)?
Online shoppers wishing to purchase any AT&T iPhone will find a disappointing message when they reach the end of their checkout process (see below).
Policies, offerings and reseller arrangements seem to be changing by the hour as the release of the iPhone 4S approaches. With so many online retailers quasi-selling the iPhone (or reselling it through a marketplace seller), it’s no wonder consumers are confused, and in some cases getting scammed as they look to the Web to get their hands on a new iPhone.
Consumers are left with three big and obvious questions:
Ultimately, it appears the only online retailers truly “authorized” to sell iPhones through their sites are: Apple.com, BestBuy.com (sort-of), Att.com, Verizon.com and Sprint.com.
Now that we know (or at least we think we know as of 10/11) who the authorized iPhone sellers are online, we’ve decided to rigorously evaluate each site to uncover which online business is the most customer-friendly. STELLAService assessed each site’s policies, features and quality of live customer support to help consumers make a more informed online buying decision. With pricing for the new iPhone standardized across all retailers, the overall customer experience should be the deciding factor in choosing where to buy your iPhone.
Stay tuned, as we plan to share the full results of our study tomorrow!
John (my co-founder) and I started to get nervous last Wednesday that our weekend travel plans would get canceled due to Hurricane Irene, so we did what most people did: we called the airlines to check on flight status, cancellation policies and airport closures.
While we waited on hold for several minutes, we thought what any entrepreneur in the customer service space would think: how will the contact centers of the country’s largest airlines perform under the stresses and high inquiry volumes caused by Hurricane Irene?
Well, since it just so happens we are in the business of evaluating and rating customer service performance, we mobilized our network of “mystery shoppers on steroids” to find out, and here’s what we found:STELLAService originally excluded replies from tweets sent to Continental’s Twitter account since it stated that its Twitter account is no longer active. Even though United and Continental have merged and now use a single active Twitter handle, @United, we have updated our findings as of 8/31/11 to reflect the 58% response rate to tweets directed to the inactive @Continental Twitter account. The tweets sent to American Airlines were sent to an account they deem to be inactive, so we have removed their Twitter findings and updated the above chart for that as well.
Kudos to U.S. Airways for keeping average hold times under three minutes the day before the storm hit. Most of the wait times at other airlines ranged from 10 minutes to over an hour (American Airlines took an average of 1 hour and 32 minutes to answer our calls)!
As for leveraging Twitter to provide service to travelers in despair, Delta, Frontier and jetBlue proved their social media savviness. Delta and jetBlue even responded to customer service-related tweets within 14 minutes and 11 minutes, respectively. Delta took it one step further and personalized it’s Twitter support by denoting the initials of the specific agent at Delta who replied to each tweet. This is time saving and convenient in the event the issue needed to be taken to the phones and that agent’s name could be referenced as someone who was already aware of the problem / issue.
Considering the major challenges in reaching a customer service agent over the phone and the conversational nature of twitter as a channel for customer support, it was great to see these airlines use Twitter so effectively to help their customers. AirTran responded to none of the tweets we sent the day before Irene made landfall.
It’s obvious we have choices when it comes to choosing an airline, and while there are sometimes slight price differences that make us lean one way or another, at the end of the day it’s all about the customer experience. When things are calm or when things are crazy, we need our airline of choice to be able to help us quickly, confidently and in a genuine way.
One of the best things about the concept of “service” is that it’s celebrated in just about every context. When done right, there’s nothing better than first class room service, genuine public service and of course top-rate customer service from a rockin’ online retailer.
Even beer companies are getting into the mix, finding a way to pair the concept of great service with their brands. The iconic beer company Budweiser has a new ad campaign called “Proudly Serving Those Who Serve”:
What do you think of the ad? Truly celebrating “service” or something else…?
While it’s good to see American Express picking up the slack for retailers’ weak returns policies, it shouldn’t have to come to this (Amex will provide a full refund for items purchased on the Web up to 180 days from the date of purchase):
Companies of all shapes and sizes (and especially online stores) have the opportunity to connect with us as consumers by providing great customer service – truly being there for us when we need them. However, it appears there’s a critical mass of online stores missing the boat!
I have a feeling American Express did their research and made a calculated move to become the surrogate-customer-service-provider for online shoppers unsatisfied with their current returns experiences. What a shame for all the e-retailers out there who are now sending us somewhere else for customer service…how exactly does that play into the whole “building long-term loyalty with customers” strategy?
When a company fails to meet market demands for a certain kind of customer service (in this case the time-frame to return a product), we’re forced to go elsewhere to get the kind of experience we want (and apparently will even pay for!). Seems crazy to me that companies would spend millions of dollars to get us to visit their stores (which they do) and hopefully get us comfortable enough to buy (which they sometimes do), just so they can send us away to a big name brand we already trust (Amex) to take care of our returns.
If I ran an online store with a return window of 30 – or even 90 – days, I’d spend the ten seconds this morning to update that number to at least 180 days. Those ten seconds could bring $10 million in lifetime sales back to a business by simply giving shoppers what they want – a flexible and consumer-friendly return policy.
I recently sat down with Columbia University’s Dave Lerner to talk about how and why John and I started STELLAService. We also touched on life as an entrepreneur in New York City, raising venture capital and what it really takes to evaluate the customer service quality of thousands of online retailers.
Check it out on the Huffington Post, or just watch below:
In case you missed the big news on Ad Age, TechCrunch, WWD or from the chatter on Twitter / Facebook (or the bar on Friday night!), we announced $2 million in funding and launched a brand new site this week…needless to say, the STELLAService team is pumped!
We couldn’t be more thrilled to announce our new investors: Battery Ventures; DFJ Gotham Ventures; RRE Ventures; Consiglere Brand Capital; and angel Mark Wachen. Including our existing angels and business and industry advisors, we’ve assembled quite the stellar team of experienced and successful minds when it comes to e-commerce, branding and understanding and measuring online customer service.
So what does all this mean for Internet retailers and the hundreds of millions of online shoppers out there? Well, for one we plan to expand our merchant ratings and service data from a few hundred online stores last year to several thousand this year. More “deep-dives” into the service quality of online retailers means more customer service transparency for everyone and a greater ability for us to help guide online shoppers to the best stores on the Web. We’re adding several hundred new merchant ratings each month to our site, so check back early and often, and especially ahead of big purchases to ensure you’re always buying from a store that truly takes care of its customers!
We plan to continue building out our awesome team, with several key hires coming in technology, marketing and operations. We’re also laser-focused on bolstering our team of seasoned and passionate customer experience analysts. Our analysts (which are kind of like mystery shoppers on steroids) work tirelessly, day in and day out, collecting service data and evaluating every single nook and cranny of the online customer experience for each store we evaluate. Their “on-the-ground” investigations are the essence of the STELLAService approach. We bring that unbiased information back to the entire online shopping community via our store profile pages and our STELLAService seal, which represents the only truly objective signal in the marketplace of a company’s commitment to top-rate customer service.
We’ve learned more than we could have imagined in the last year from shoppers, customer support reps, customer-obsessed e-commerce professionals and most importantly our constant flow of customer service data. We work every day to further apply these insights as a means to building real transparency in the world of online shopping, one online store at a time.
Lots of big things to come this year, so stay tuned by subscribing to this blog, following us on Twitter and friending/liking/joining/whatever’ing us on Facebook. And of course, don’t forget to check out our shiny new site at STELLAService.com!
As promised, you will now be able to leverage our customer service ratings and seals when you really, really need them: on comparison shopping sites. STELLAService announced today that its STELLA Ratings and STELLAService seals will soon be displayed next to listed retailers on the #3 comparison shopping engine TheFind.com, enabling its base of 23 million monthly shoppers to quickly and completely assess the quality of online stores right upfront within search results.
This is a major enhancement to the five-star, community-driven rating system traditionally used by many shopping engines, which provide little differentiation between stores and allow for biased, unreliable reviews of a seller’s service quality to influence a merchant’s overall score. STELLAService, on the other hand, takes a consistent, independent and completely exhaustive approach to evaluating every possible aspect of the online customer experience.
The STELLAService seal, which has become the Web’s most meaningful and substantive signal of service quality, will now help identify those stores with the highest levels of customer service in an increasingly crowded and competitive marketplace. While this is obviously a win for consumers, it also enables merchants who earn and display the seal to differentiate themselves and benefit from higher quality traffic and better conversion rates.
I think our Advisor and ecommerce expert Marsha Collier said it best:
Seeing the STELLAService rating/seal next to a retailer takes the guesswork out of online shopping. Everyone has product, but customer service is where the rubber meets the road.
Next time you’re cruising the Web for that must-have item, discard the uncertainty of receiving bad service – look first to see if the store achieved the STELLAService seal on TheFind.com
Back in dark ages when you had to physically go into a store to get your problems solved or your questions answered, you were in the best possible position to be truly heard and understood by the company. Standing face-to-face with a CSR triggered that person’s need to completely understand you – your issues; your concerns; your demeanor; your nature; your personality; your needs; and the context of the situation – and then appropriately solve your problem in a way that best suited YOU, the individual. Since no two people are the same, it makes sense that no two customer service interactions were the same.
Fast-forward to 2010 and think about all the different mediums through which you can now engage a company for customer support: the store employees, phone, email, live chat, Twitter, Facebook, text/SMS, GetSatisfaction.com and other support forums. It doesn’t take much to see that there’s been a widening “understanding gap” between you (the individual customer) and the CSRs directed to serve you. When it would have been laughable to see a CSR try to repeat the exact same customer service interaction for multiple people that walked into his or her store in a given day, it’s now standard practice for e-mail and live chat support for many companies.
The test for today’s companies is whether or not they can stay committed to the concept of truly understanding the needs, wants, problems and required solutions for each individual customer. Technology can assist this process or work against it. It can be used to gain information about a customer’s likes, dislikes, preferred methods of communication, attitudes toward products or services, etc. – all of which will ultimately enhance the customer experience and the overall service quality. On other hand, technology can be leveraged to provide measly 140 character “answers” or stock email template “solutions” to problems that really call for in-depth conversations over the phone or in-person.
While the “face-to-face” age of customer service required companies to truly understand you (after all, you stood directly in front of their CSRs!), today’s technology-driven consumer marketplace has no such requirements.
Which companies in your world go the distance to integrate new technologies with exceptional live customer support to truly understand the people they call their customers?