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July 2000

Tracey S. Roth Christmas Is Coming. Are You Prepared?

BY TRACEY S. ROTH


It may seem ridiculous, in the midst of summer, to talk about Christmas. Holiday picnics and beach vacations may seem more appropriate. But in the heart of every e-tailer, fear is lurking...or so it should be. Last holiday season's e-commerce disasters may seem far behind us, but next year's potential pitfalls are much closer than you may think. Poor planning and management is the watermark of amateurs, you might say. But let's not forget that some of last holiday season's biggest crimes were committed by the behemoths that should have known better: Toys R Us, for example. Besides, with e-sales and e-service growing at the astounding rates they are, almost everyone is an amateur at this point, regardless of whether they represent a popular and well-marketed dot com company or a respected brick-and-mortar firm. There is no precedent for online shopping at the exponential growth rate it is currently experiencing. One of the best things online retailers can do at this point is examine last year's missteps and successes and learn from them.

So what went wrong last year?

More concern about Web page design than real functionality. Sure, you've got a flashy Web site with great graphics. Your Webmaster is very talented. That's nice, but is your site user-friendly? People are coming online for the first time in record numbers: women, who traditionally hold the bulk of the buying power in the U.S.; and senior citizens, many of whom have money to spend but are new at the e-commerce game. Can amateurs use your site? Is it intuitive or is it accessible only to other Webmasters and IT professionals? Does it have an easy-to-use search function? Is live help available, either via Web chat or "call me" buttons? If it's not, someone else has a site with these features.

Narrow product availability. Many companies made the mistake last year of offering little more than virtual window displays. Pretty, but what if your customers want more?

Ignoring e-mail. A few years ago, e-mail was a nice "extra" for a customer. Lately, most consumers want an e-mail query to be considered as important as a telephone call to a toll-free number. "We were overwhelmed" worked as an excuse last year. It won't work again this year.

Discombobulated back-end systems. This is perhaps the most crucial element. As many dot coms learned during last year's holiday shopping period, putting a picture of a product on your Web site doesn't mean you can get it to your customers when and where they want it. Is your warehousing in order? Do you have a trustworthy and effective shipping partner? Is your billing well-integrated into your call center? If you answered "no" to any of these questions, then don't even bother this year. Let the big boys do it. When it comes to e-tailing, a failed venture does not mean you break even...it may sink your company. (Earlier this year, the news was full of e-tailers that did not survive the holiday season.)

Hiring 12-year-olds because they "know the Internet." OK...maybe they're not 12, they just look it. Given a choice between a right-out-of-college employee with an IT degree and a 30-year marketing veteran, I'd pick the marketing veteran. Yes, you'll always need Web-savvy people, but remember that just as life imitates art, e-commerce imitates traditional business. Where it counts, the principles are the same.

A lack of integration between the brick-and-mortar store and the Web site. Too many companies with an existing brick-and-mortar presence are guilty of this sin. In an attempt to take full advantage of the tempting fact that many e-commerce transactions are sales-tax free, companies try to divide their physical storefronts from the virtual ones. This is a huge mistake...customers want the option of using both channels simultaneously. All this practice breeds is confusion, inefficiency and dissatisfied customers.

Approaching e-sales too gingerly. Often, companies put one toe in the water first, assuming a "wait-and-see" attitude. The truth is, many of your competitors have jumped in all at once, and made adjustments later as they saw fit. Chances are, they'll be the ones that succeed. E-shoppers are not likely to wait for you to get your act together.

The truth is, you may feel a little out of your depth. Take comfort in the fact that everyone else is also. One trick is to avoid trying to do it all yourself...get help. There is a lot of it available. You'll find it in the pages of this magazine; in companies that host Web malls; in e-mail management software; with talented, Web-savvy customer service reps and in outsourcers who specialize in Web-based customer service.

So...I'll ask again. Are you prepared?

The author may be contacted at troth@tmcnet.com.

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