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
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
to the July 2000 table of contents ]