BOSTON — The fast-growing Web is all about access - until, it seems, you go looking for human help behind the cybercurtain.
Cheryl Hannigan, a single mom and security-systems analyst in suburban Chicago, knows this story all too well. She had been saving up for a canopy bed until several months ago, when she found that proverbial "good deal" online. So she sent a $500 check to a small store in North Carolina. And she waited ... and waited.
When the bed didn't show, she e-mailed the company.
Eventually, she found a phone number buried deep in the company's Web site and spoke with a representative. The bed, Ms. Hannigan was told, had to be reshipped - and she would have to pay the extra fee, even if she cancelled the order.
Instead, Hannigan complained to the North Carolina office of the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and the state's attorney general. But still no bed - and no refund.
So Hannigan went searching online again - this time for a better place to complain. She stumbled upon Web-Assured.com, an online consumer-protection service.
With their help, she finally got her money back.
WebAssured.com is among a growing number of Web sites that catch e-consumers, who can fall through the cracks of traditional consumer-advocate agencies within the government.
Analysts argue federal agencies like the BBB lack the time - and the savvy - to follow through with individual complaints on elusive e-tailers.
Online watchdogs, conversely, get results by making accessible to millions worldwide the ratings and complaints of online companies. Call it pressure through publicity.
"In Hannigan's case, the mere threat of having complaints posted globally on a publicly searchable site is what worked," says WebAssured.com CEO Travis Morgan.
WebAssured.com offers a cash-back settlement for shoppers who are dissatisfied with the service of any of its 2,000 member e-tailers.
Or, for consumers displeased with nonmember sites, WebAssured.com will still try dispute resolution.
The company - whose cash-back guarantee is backed by Lloyd's of London - has handled more than 1,000 complaints since it began in 1995.
"We still haven't had to fall back on our insurance, because the threat of bad publicity has been large enough," says Mr. Morgan.
Other consumer protection sites are similar in principle, but don't offer the insurance. Among the many are ScamBusters.org, BizRate.com, Safeshopping.org, and ithought.com.
The Federal Trade Commission, meanwhile, does have a searchable database of company complaints called the Consumer Sentinel. But it is only accessible to legal groups, who use trends in complaints to track down fraudulent companies.
More common than uncooperative or fraudulent e-tailers, however, are simple cases of uncooperative site management.
In the brick-and-mortar world, customer service may be paramount, but on the Web, analysts say, it is often an afterthought. Startups can seem more concerned with putting up a pretty site - the better to go public and score big - than in satisfying customers.
Consider the results from a recent study by Resource Marketing, a Columbus, Ohio, consulting firm that evaluates e-commerce sites. Of the 45 sites it tested, only 60 percent bothered to respond to customers' e-mail inquiries. Fewer than 10 sites had prominent guarantees offering full refunds to dissatisfied customers. And only 30 percent of the sites had real-time inventory look-up, essential for checking whether an item is in stock.
Lately, though, many Web companies have been rushing to improve glitches in customer service and site technicalities, in time for what analysts have christened the biggest holiday e-shopping season ever.
"Web companies have felt the burn of bad customer service," says Jenny Barrett, intelligence analyst for Resource Marketing. "Now on the rise is a more integrated approach to customer service."
Callback features are one example. These allow surfers to click on a button and have a salesperson telephone them. Another is the ability to instant message, or chat online, with store representatives.
But don't hold your breath - these features are expensive and have only made it to a handful of sites so far. Instead, "the best advice to e-consumers looking for a pleasant shopping experience is to scrutinize [an e-tailer's] site," says Marty Winston, a computer marketing consultant in Novelty, Ohio.
Before you shop, he says, check for a working phone number and e-mail, and for positive ratings with the BBB or consumer watchdog sites.
Now Hannigan sings a similar tune. "I'm much more watchful where I shop," she says. "I went through all that trouble to buy a canopy bed in North Carolina, only to find out it's manufactured here in Chicago, selling for less."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society