By Andy Wood, Managing Director, GI Insight

With the memory of a happy white Christmas — when record numbers of snow-bound consumers shopped online — still fresh in the minds of many e-tailers in early 2011, some may have faced a bit of a post-holiday season shock as their customer service systems were likely put under unexpected pressure by the increase in enquiries, complaints and other communications resulting from a higher sales volume.

E-tailers may also come to the bitter realisation that many of the defections they saw from the high street might not be as permanent as they hoped.

It is clear that the snow drove many a shopper from the dangerously slippery conditions of the pre-Christmas town centre to the warm comfort of their own home computers, with figures from the Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG) showing that UK consumers spent £6.4 billion online in November 2010 — up $1.1 billion from the year before.

And many consumers who chose to do their Christmas shopping from the snugness of their own homes rather than brave the elements may in fact keep shopping that way, but e-tailers can’t bet on it as the high street thaws out. What they can bank on is a surge in contact related to December sales. Delivery delays, requests for company invoices, missing information slips, requests to change items and other demands usually supported by the online customer services systems set up by pure e-tailers will have put them under new levels of strain. And many UK consumers who were happy to purchase online may realise that they do not feel comfortable with a company if they can only get help in cyberspace and not from a live person in a shop or at the end of a phone.

A recent survey carried out by GI Insight on multi-channel retailing showed that not only are UK consumers truly multichannel in their approach to shopping, using different channels to browse and buy in many cases, but they expect their retailers to offer a range of touch points for the consumer to communicate directly with them.

And consumers are truly multichannel in their approach to shopping the research shows. When it comes to making purchases, the study demonstrates that, on average, consumers are nearly as likely to buy online (46%) as they are in-store (46.8%) for non-supermarket purchases. A niche favour mail order (3.2%) over the other two channels.

Consumers, however, overwhelmingly prefer to browse or research purchases on the internet (71.9%) rather than going in-store (19.2%) to do so. This is probably thanks to the ease of being able to compare prices online and read customer reviews, while following up with a visit to a store offers the chance to have a closer look at the quality, colour or size of a product.

What’s more, shoppers expect the companies they buy from to be fully-fledged multi-channel operators. The survey revealed that 11% even expect the firms they deal with to offer catalogue shopping even though a much smaller proportion of the respondents actually use catalogues to either browse or purchase.

When it comes to being able to make an enquiry, seek customer service, find help, lodge a complaint, take up a new offer, or otherwise speak directly with a firm, consumers are adamant that a company should offer a variety of communication options. If a business does not offer customers a choice of channel, 39% of the survey’s respondents say they are likely to switch to a competitor — the figure is even higher (48%) if the company is one that the consumer has not bought from before.

Will they get this channel choice from online-only retailers? In most cases this is unlikely. Too many e-tailers fail to offer a customer service line or any other options to consumers other than send-and-hope email mechanism. And if they do have a telephone helpline, what are the chances that a consumer will ever get to talk to a real person? Far too many web-only firms let themselves down on this point.

Being available to consumers and lending them a sympathetic ear is easy for high street retailers: customers can simply go into the shop to ask a question or raise a complaint. Pure e-tailers need to make it just as easy. If they don't, the customer experience will be awful and turn people permanently off.

Reacting to the needs of the multichannel consumer is not about setting up a website and waiting for the orders to pour in — online vendors have to make just as much effort to understand their customers and respond to them as any other type of retailer. That means maintaining traditional customer management methods: tracking each as an individual and treating them as such, both in marketing to them and in responding to their needs.