As many a marketer will likely attest, too often in today’s retail environment consumers’ final decision in the buyer process comes down one little five letter word: price. Shoppers, armed with their mobile devices, maintain a direct connection to the best deals, promotions, coupons, and offers with just a tap of their fingers, many times giving shoppers an intelligence edge over retailers competing for those buying dollars. In this age of smart consumerism, what’s a retailer to do?
Many retailers, of course, offer unique products, exclusive designs, and have erected (nearly ubiquitous) shopper loyalty programs in attempt to garner some loyalty from today’s elusive shoppers. The tried-and-true method of courting shoppers is customer service, though as shoppers increasingly gravitate online for their purchases, the definition of customer service continues to evolve. Providing great service isn’t just about a smile, a greeting, answering a question, or providing assistance; today’s digital consumers have come to expect reliable, dependable shipping to their doors, worry-free returns, and virtual assistance with a human component.
This evolution is clearly apparent with a review of Prosper‘s new list of Customer Service Champions for 2013, where five of the top ten retailers named by consumers for service excellence aren’t your garden variety brick-and-mortar sellers. Online giant Amazon tops our list, developed from a write-in vote from U.S. consumers (18+) in September 2013 and weighted by each retailers’ relative size in annual revenues as well as its fan base, as defined by a retailer’s Promoters (per the Net Promoter Score.*) Two other non-traditional retailers, L.L.Bean and Lands’ End, follow Amazon while Kohl’s (in fourth position) ranks as the highest brick-and-mortar retailer in our list. Cabela’s, JCPenney, Zappos.com, Newegg.com, Macy’s, and Nordstrom complete the top ten.
A closer look at each of these Champions reveals more about why consumers singled out each of these retailers for customer service excellence:
1. Amazon: While the world’s largest online retailer didn’t exactly excite fans with their Prime membership rate hike earlier this year, Amazon continues to set the digital standard for retailers with their low prices, reliable and low-threshold free shipping, and quick-response customer service team.
What Amazon shoppers say:
“Easy to reach. They listen and they fix every problem on the side of the customer whether the purchase was made through them or a third party. They have the BEST customer service of ANY company, PERIOD.”
“They are super tuned to their customers and completely competent when meeting my needs and other customers too. They keep track of everything for you and cater their wares to your needs.”
“My family and friends always tell me how much they love getting the best deals when shopping with this site. I would have to agree with them.”
2. L.L.Bean: Boasting “100% Satisfaction Guaranteed Since 1912,” L.L.Bean is a customer service pioneer in the direct-to-consumer environment that stands behind the quality of their products for the long haul – a seemingly rare find in a sea of retailers with 30 or 60 day return limits. The retailer also offers shoppers one of their favorite online incentives: free shipping without a purchase threshold.
What L.L.Bean shoppers say:
“L.L. Bean’s customer service and product guarantee is legendary and their products have excellent quality.”
“I can either shop independently online or have 24 hour access to customer service via phone. If the customer service people cannot answer my question, there are product specialists available for consultation. Every single person I have spoken to at L.L. Bean over the last 25 years has been accommodating and customer-centric. It is a true joy to shop there and that is why I am extremely brand loyal.”
“Several years ago we purchased a lamp from L. L. Bean. We had the lamp for 2 or 3 years when the paint started to chip off. We asked them if we could get it repaired. They sent us a new lamp.”
3. Lands’ End: In that aforementioned sea of retailers with limited windows for returns, consider Lands’ End in the same boat as competitor L.L.Bean. Highlighting a 21 year old return of a vintage taxi on its website, the newly public company invites its shoppers to share their Lands’ End stories as the retailer attempts to shed the Sears stigma.
What Lands’ End shoppers say:
“Product satisfaction guaranteed period!”
“I had a problem with my order on the website and when I called the customer service number, an actual person answered. She had the problem fixed in a matter of 1-2 minute, no putting me on hold, etc.”
“My experiences shopping in their store, catalog and internet have all been extremely positive.”
4. Kohl’s: With its heavy promotional strategy, a fanatical following for Kohl’s Cash incentives, and inventory of familiar brands, Kohl’s ensures that its budget-minded shoppers leave their stores feeling good about the value they’ve received, one of the key ingredients for building loyalty in the today’s uncertain economy. Kohl’s also employs a liberal return policy that helps inspire confidence in shoppers’ purchases.
What Kohl’s shoppers say:
“All the employees are helpful. They also have a great no hassle return policy. They also have kiosks in store where you can order an item online for free shipping if they don’t have it in stock at the store.”
“They’re very helpful and go out of their way to find discounts for customers.”
“This company has great customer service. Returns are no problem. They offer deals, sales and promotions almost every week.”
5. Cabela’s: If an instore experience is going to save brick-and-mortar retailers as shoppers increasingly gravitate online, retailers ought to look to Cabela’s for inspiration. With its taxidermy zoos, aquatic tanks, and in-store eatery, the outdoor outfitter has successfully grown its retail square footage as a destination for shoppers. Cabela’s vast selection and knowledgeable sales staff likely don’t hurt, either.
What Cabela’s shoppers say:
“[Cabela’s] is awesome, and the employees know what they are talking about. They are extremely nice and there is always someone to greet you when you walk in the store. There is so much to see and they have a huge selection of items. They even have a restaurant inside. It sells more than just sporting goods it sells old fashion candy, furniture, cookware for home and camping. It has so much stuff I can’t even name them all. Just go and you will see.”
“Their employees just seem to be happy to be there. And it is reflected in their attitude towards customers.”
“They stand behind everything they sell no matter what.”
6. JCPenney: While the department store stalled with customers during the Ron Johnson era, post-fair-and-square JCPenney issued a mea culpa to shoppers and made concerted efforts to win by shoppers by bringing back beloved brands – as well as those all-important sales and coupons. With Q4 2013 same store sales rising 2.0% over the previous year, it seems that JCPenney customers feel like they’ve finally been heard – and appreciate it.
What JCPenney shoppers say:
“I think JCPenney provides the best customer service. They always greet you nicely when you shop in the store whether it is picking up an item that was ordered online or purchasing something in store.”
“[JCPenney] provides quality apparel and household items at affordable prices, great customer service – helpful and caring – and neat, spacious, and organized stores.”
“I like dealing with a live person, and the employees at JC Penney make me feel like they value my business.”
7. Zappos.com: Compared to some of the other Champions in this list, Zappos is still a retailing youngster, but has already challenged the status quo for customer service excellence and offers highly desired free shipping/free returns on orders. Vowing a WOW experience for its shoppers, the online pure-play perhaps taught parent Amazon a thing or two about providing a delightful shopping experience.
What Zappos shoppers say:
“Customers 1st. No hassle returns. Merchandise shipped & received as promised.”
“Amazingly helpful, cheerful staff when you have to call about anything.”
“Shipping is always free. Customer service representatives live up to the expectation of being super friendly and customer focused.”
8. Newegg.com: Also a relative newcomer to the retail game, Newegg initially gained traction with tech shoppers with a competitive pricing structure and supportive, solutions-oriented customer service. Now, its Shipped by Newegg third-party fulfillment service allowed Newegg to branch into a variety of non-electronics merchandise categories, enabling this digital player to cast a wider net for potential shoppers.
What Newegg shoppers say:
“They have great communication. They confirm every step of the process. They are very accessible via phone [or] e-mail. They make returns very easy and pain free.”
“Electronics can be complex but the representatives are knowledgeable and there are great deals on any product you can imagine.”
“Always willing to assist you in obtaining the correct component, and if wrong no issues with refunding/replacing.”
9. Macy’s: With a more upscale aura than competitors JCPenney and Kohl’s, shoppers have come to expect a higher level of customer service from this department store standard. Macy’s also promises an easy return process (aided by those proof-of-purchase stickers) without a time limit. Frequent coupons and one day sales present a value proposition for today’s shoppers, too.
What Macy’s shoppers say:
“I like the customer service that I receive at Macys because they treat you like you are the most valuable customer in the store, not just someone spending money.”
“Knowledgeable sales staff willing to go the extra mile to serve their customers.”
“Macy’s delivers excellent customer service without a doubt on any issues or returns I have ever had.”
10. Nordstrom: Legendary customer service is the hallmark of the Nordstrom experience. While this luxury seller isn’t found in every mall or shopping center across the country, its digital presence has given Nordstrom nationwide access to customers, who also enjoy free shipping and free returns on all orders.
What Nordstrom shoppers say:
“Nordstrom’s philosophy for customer care is geared toward total satisfaction. In other words, no worry shopping.”
“The level of customer service [at Nordstrom] is just spectacular. They are always willing to help, they greet you when you walk in, there is no hassle on returns/exchanges. It’s simply a wonderful place to shop.”
“Nordstrom offers free shipping and free returns on purchases. They have a very customer focused policy on everything (in store as well) and the free shipping/returns policy makes it a great option when unsure of sizing and/or fit of items, color, etc. I LOVE using them in any form!”
Going forward, the challenge for these Champions will be to at the very least maintain, if not accelerate, the level of customer service for which shoppers cherish them. With the retail landscape set to evolve and become more competitive as the pace of online and mobile shoppers grows, all retailers will be tasked with providing consistent, secure, and delightful experiences for shoppers across all buying channels – a challenge that many of those who didn’t appear in this year’s top 10 list will surely take on.
*Net Promoter, NPS and Net Promoter Score are trademarks of Satmetrix Systems, Inc., Bain & Company, and Fred Reichheld
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.