Cisco Systems’ Internet Business Solutions Group analysed 20 major retail Web sites to find out which ones excel at providing customers with a rich shopping experience. To evaluate back-end processes, products were purchased on each site so that the entire shopping life cycle could be observed. Web merchants were measured on over 70 discrete attributes that break out along two dimensions: foundational capabilities and emerging capabilities. Foundational capabilities refer to "must have" features including "ease of use, limited personalization, some free content, and secure, reliable transactional processes."

Top marks for foundational capabilities went to Cabela’s, a sporting goods retailer that is relatively unknown compared to the next four highest-ranked brands. Cabela’s earned the top spot by having a strong search capability that allows users to browse by user-defined criteria (such as hobby). Cabela’s also received high marks for the depth of product information on its site.

Overall, Cisco found that the leaders in foundational capabilities are moving beyond ease of use into offering extensive content produced in-house or through third parties that enhances the shopping experience by helping customers make purchase decisions. Some 81% of the sites in the survey went beyond the basics by actively soliciting customer feedback at multiple points, and 57% have multi-channel capabilities such as allowing customers to buy online and pick up at the store.

The second dimension, emerging capabilities, covers the more sophisticated attributes of the online shopping experience. These features take the online shopping experience to a higher level of convenience and satisfaction and include "enhanced personalization, user-driven content, and interaction with the site and other shoppers." Amazon’s well-known personalization tools such as its "customers who bought x also bought y" feature come to mind and they illustrate the innovative approach that earned Amazon the top slot in the emerging capabilities ranking. Other Internet retailers scored high in emerging capabilities for having rich content (Cabela’s), visibility into store inventory (Wal-Mart) and real-time customer service (Office Depot).

Taking a closer look at emerging capabilities, Cisco found that 67% of the sites allowed customers to shop in at least two languages. Best Buy, HPShopping, Home Depot and Office Depot stood out in this respect. Meanwhile, only 28% of the sites provide the option to chat or talk with a customer service representative while on the retailer’s site. Office Depot ranked high here as well.

In Cisco’s taxonomy, those Web merchants that scored high on both foundational and emerging capabilities (e.g., Cabela’s and Amazon) are "leaders." Retailers who scored high on emerging capabilities and performed reasonably well in foundational capabilities are "challengers" (e.g., Wal-Mart and Office Depot). Businesses that are strong but not exceptional in both capabilities are "followers." Cisco concludes that to be successful in the future all Internet retailers need to watch the competition, keep in touch with customers, continuously improve the design and functionality of their Web sites, and create more meaningful ways for shoppers to interact with the e-tailer and other customers when on its site.

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