I recently wrote about food companies' Web site responses, suggesting that food companies might not be giving the consumer the kind of service they think they are. I based that column on one or two queries that I had made to food companies, to which I received less than prompt or even polite responses. As I thought about what I wrote and pondered the e-mails I got concerning the article, I decided to perform a more complete study in order to better evaluate the type of responses consumers get.
To test the food companies response rates, I wrote an e-mail to the top food companies in the U.S. requesting a location where I could buy one of their products. To pick the products, I went to each company's Web page and searched for the name of a new product or selected one that was mentioned.
The results may surprise you, since everyone claims that the Web will be the new communication channel in the future -- that it will give food processors one-to-one contact with consumers.
I was able to access Web sites and send e-mails to 93 of the top U.S. food companies. The problems started even before I sent my e-mail, as I was unable to contact 23 companies based on the contact information provided on the Web. Sixteen companies did not respond to my request for information at all.
Of the 93 top food companies that I attempted to contact, only 22 responded with an answer (23 percent). Seven companies responded the same day; three in two days; one in four days; one in five days; one in six days; and one in 22 days.
Other companies sent auto-responses such as, "Thank you for contacting us. We value your business and someone will get back to you with a response to your questions." There were 16 auto-responses that answered in the following fashion: 12 on the same day; three in one day; and one in two days. Of the 16 auto-responses, only 10 actually followed up with another e-mail: one the same day; three in one day; two in two days; one in five days; two in six days; and one in 43 days (Remember this is where you can buy the product).
Of the 10 that did follow-up, only five actually answered the question, while two redirected me to another Web site or e-mail address (usually a broker or distributor) and one responded that they don't answer those types of questions. Two said they needed more information.
Some companies responded to my request for information with their own request for information -- reasonable questions, such as "What is your zip code?" so that they could provide an accurate response. Five companies requested more information to better answer the question and their responses came back as follows: one on the same day; one in one day; one in two days; one in five days; and one in 29 days.
For years, food processors have complained that one of their problems is they don't have contact with consumers. They are so far up the channel that they have lost the relationship. The Web has opened up a new channel of communication; the marketers and protectors of brand equity must embrace it. In many cases, I believe that the brands may or will be tarnished by a failure to respond in a delightful fashion to Web consumers looking for answers. In many cases the maintenance of the Web has been turned over to members of IT, who may be more interested in the technology than the customer.
Evidence of this is the cumbersome nature of Web sites that often look pretty but are slow loading and not consumer-friendly. Some brand managers don't even get a report on what consumers are asking about on the Web site. It's part of the "keep them away from me" or "I am too important to listen to one consumer" mentality. Ask Michael Dell how he used almost no money and the Web to create a brand that is now taking on IBM as the industry leader.
The Web should function as an avenue of communication with the consumer that protects and grows the brand. IT and others should function just like an ad agency to help make it happen.
How would you rate this industry Web performance? I think it's bad!
John L. Stanton is a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. He can be contacted at (610) 660-1607; fax (610) 660-1604; e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org; or www.johnLstanton.com.