Online shopping: How to avoid a lump of coal

Closeup of guy working on a laptop indoor
iStockphoto

(MoneyWatch) If you're still shopping for holiday presents, then e-commerce is a great tool to get done without running crazily from one store to another. But as time starts to run short, you get more dependent on those online companies holding up their end. Unfortunately, according to some experts, not every company can be counted on.

There are multiple areas in which you might depend on a retailer's attention: Responding to emails, taking orders and sending out merchandise on time. Any breakdown in communication or service could potentially cause a hiccough in your order. Depending on when you paid for products and how close that was to the holidays, a mishap could result in a gift going missing until after the fact.

For example, online customer service rating company STELLAService performed an analysis of responsiveness to email, live chat, and phone during the stretch between Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The subjects were 25 top online retailers, including Amazon.com and its Zappos.com subsidiary, Best Buy, Macy's, J.C. Penney, L.L. Bean, Costco, QVC and Target. The longer or more unreliable the responses, the greater difficulty you can have in placing an order.

According to the analysis, the top two email responders were L.L. Bean and Amazon, answering 100 percent of the test emails in an average time of 26 seconds and 43 seconds respectively. The next closest was Overstock.com, which answered 85 percent and took 3 minutes and 28 seconds. Zappos answered all emails with an average time of 7 minutes, 48 seconds. Then there were the worst performers, such as ToysRUs.com, answering none of the emails, Best Buy which got to only 15 percent and took just over 22 minutes, and J.C. Penney, which answered only 5 percent of the emails and took more than 17 minutes on the average.

Companies often respond differently, depending on the medium. The top phone responders, for example, were J.C. Penney at 22 seconds to get an agent and OfficeMax at 30 seconds. Amazon took about a minute. (Yes, Amazon has a customer service number that STELLAService lists on its profile of the company.) At the bottom were Costco (12:34) and TigerDirect (12:14).

Customer service responsiveness is important, but so is actually getting the product. According to online deal site DealNews, some stores are known for being slow shippers. For example, DealNews says that Kohl's can take a week between a consumer placing an order and notification that the order is ready to ship and that Best Buy "usually takes five days to process an order, upon which you can tack on the days it's actually in transit," with some orders taking longer.

And then there is shipping products to physical locations so the consumer can pick them up. According to DealNews, Payless Shoes often takes 14 days to get an order to a store. Wal-Mart is faster, but you can only pick up the order when the customer service desk is staffed. For some locations that may be 9 to 5, so you'd want to verify hours ahead of time.

So, as time gets short, do some research in advance to be sure that the money you save won't be over matched by the aggravation you ultimately feel.

  • Erik Sherman On Twitter» On Facebook»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.