By Ashley Watson, dealnews writer As the post-holiday reality of a sluggish economy returns, retailers are back to struggling to sell to still-frugal customers. One way to stick out of the fray and keep loyal buyers: great customer service. Every year, the National Retail Federation gives out awards for the Best Customer Service, this year co-sponsored by American Express. Making it to the top of the list is like winning an Oscar for retailing. As NRF executive director Kathy Mance puts it: "In a time when many retailers are competing on price, customer service becomes an outstanding way to stand out in the eyes of the consumer." And the 2010 winners are, in order: Zappos.com Amazon.com LL Bean Overstock.com Lands' End JCPenney Kohl's QVC Nordstrom newegg.com This survey, conducted by BIGresearch, asked 9,291 consumers the same question: "Thinking of all the different retail formats (store, catalog, internet, or home shopping), which retailer delivers the best customer service?" To ensure fairness, the answers were compared to each retailer's 2009 revenues before the NRF published the overall results. dealnews spoke with Phil Rist from BIGresearch to find out why shoppers think these companies were the winter. Rist says that in addition to the single-answer question, survey participants were asked a second, open-ended question: "Why?" And he says that three major themes emerged from the second part of the survey: Consistency — the top 10 have institutionalized and systematized good customer service as part of their business model and culture. Easy to do business with — no hassle return policy, free shipping, fair prices, available product and order status information, etc. Helpful and Friendly Associates — with the key word being "helpful." Now that more customers are shopping online, these themes adopt an entirely different set of standards. "Customer service is no longer just about a friendly smile," says Rist, "and companies like Zappos are changing the rules." Customers respond to the kind of consistency that the top companies have developed as part of their model, and competitors must follow the same guidelines if they want to keep up. Not only are the top ten companies raising the bar for all retailers, they are changing the demands of the marketplace. As customers expect more, companies can no longer use the brand popularity of what may become an outdated form of cradle-to-grave marketing. NRF's top ten in customer service could become the leaders in the future of marketplace economics. More information about the survey can be found at the NRF website. Ashley Watson received her MFA from Goddard College in January 2006. Upon completing her degree, she taught writing composition at the University of Arizona and began her career as a freelance writer. She is a contributor to the 2007 Teacher's Guide to Living Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry and Drama, and she has published articles in various online and print magazines. She currently resides in Vermont.