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Tracey E.Schelmetic

[January 22, 2003]

Dot Commentary

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Managing Editor, CUSTOMER INTER@CTION Solutions

Yet Another Post-Mortem Of The Dot Com Phenomenon

I was listening to NPR one morning last week, as usual. I usually listen with only three-quarters of my attention, the remaining quarter devoted to tooth brushing, picking white cat hair off dark clothing, taking something out of the freezer for dinner, and checking the temperature to find out whether to wear an extra fuzzy sweater. That particular morning, however, NPR had all my attention.

James Ledbetter, the former European bureau chief of the now-defunct Industry Standard, has written a book called, Starving To Death On $200 Million, a post-mortem of the death of that spectacularly debuted magazine that went down in a whimper a mere two years later. He was discussing his new book with an NPR interviewer. If walls had sensitivities to naughty language, the paint would have been peeling off mine that morning.

As a result, I toyed with the idea of naming my column of this week, How To Turn Moaning And Blamestorming Into A Cottage Industry.

I remember the kind of parties Ledbetter talked about when he discussed the early, wildly successful days of both the e-commerce industry and the Industry Standardpress launches, cocktail parties at trade shows, annual meeting receptions. The editors from the Industry Standard were the ones doing the conga line around the ice sculpture, glass of Dom Perignon in hands. My colleagues and I were the ones standing in the corner, gawking at the excess, betting how long it would be before the gravy train ended.

We spent a lot of money on something called customer relationship management software, said Ledbetter, which is something I wont even begin to explain, but suffice it to say it didnt work.

Clearly, sir youre not going to begin to explain it because you likely didnt understand it to begin with. It didnt work, I imagine, because those who were supposed to be learning how to use it were too busy shopping for Porsches. Heres a secretcustomer relationship management software isnt going to run your company while youre out getting your butt kissed by the venture capital guys.

Despite the death of the Industry Standard, Ledbetter indicated that, There remains a great appetite for Internet business. He cites the successes of Amazon.com (which in reality has a spotty record of success) and Napster and Kazaa (one of them has been shut down by lawsuits, the other one has just recently had the first lawsuits filed against itand besides, teenaged file swappers were very likely NOT reading publications like the Industry Standard).

Hes right, of course, that the market still has a huge appetite for goods and services bought over the Internet. Im starting to have a bit of a problem with e-commerce, though. I dont order nearly as much off the Internet as I used to, particularly now in a tighter economy, and I wonder how many others are like me. Mostly, this is due to some experiences Ive had recently.

It may be no secret to many of you that there are few bargains on domestic flights right now. What we need is a really good price war to get things low again. Regardless, Ive been on the hunt for round-trip tickets from New York to New Orleans, and have yet to come up with any price that really pleases me. So I logged onto Priceline.comIve never used their service for flights before, and I was faintly curious about what they would come up with. I followed their instructions on bidding for flights, entered my information, andmy bid got rejected. I got a helpful e-mail, though, telling me that they could offer me round trip tickets for the low price of $196.00, including tax.

What a bargain! American Airlines is offering a direct flight, at the times I pick myself, for $186.50. Sofor the privilege of not being able to choose my flight times or my airline, Priceline would be happy to accommodate me by charging me $10 more than buying them directly from my preferred carrier. When I informed them of this via e-mail, I got a patronizing auto-reply message: Were sorry youre disappointed with your Priceline experience. Chances are pretty good that no one with a decision-making job function will ever see my e-mail, or understand the fairly uncomplicated principle that if youre purporting to be a discounter of airline tickets, its kind of important that you actually offer discounts. Same goes with the big three: Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz, all of whom now seem incapable of beating the prices on flights purchased directly from the carriers.

My second experience involves an order I still have pending from long before the holidays. I ordered some prints and mattes as Christmas gifts. I received two mattes and one print on about December 21st, a few days after I placed the order. I had received an e-mail telling me that my entire order had been received (which presumably means it went into their system). Im still waiting for the balance of my order. My credit card number has not been charged for the unshipped materials, and I have yet to receive any notification of whats going on. My two query e-mails have gone unanswered. Im a bit curious to find out when, or if, theyre going to bother processing my order, or if theyre going to let me know if theyre ever going to get around to taking my money. Must be nice to be so flush you can pick and choose when, and if, you decide to fill your customers orders.

Even Ledbetters Gold Standard, Amazon.com, has showed a particular brand of cluelessness lately. I recently had a $20 gift certificate from Borders books, so I dropped by a store on a quiet Sunday and browsed through their DVD titles. I ultimately settled on a three-DVD set of my favorite BBC mystery, Cadfael, based on the books by Ellis Peters about a mystery-solving 12th-century monk in Shrewsbury Abbey (but to quote Peter Graves, thats not important right now.) The total came to $41 and change, which required me to pony up the $21 difference after my gift certificate was applied. I left pleased with my purchase, which put the finishing touch on a lovely Sunday evening spent in sweatpants drinking tea with the heat cranked up (its currently colder than the surface of Neptune in the Northeast right now). I was so pleased I decided to find out about acquiring another DVD set of the same show, so I visited Amazon. With taxes and shipping, I would have paid over $50 for the same DVD collection, with a two-day shipping option.

Do you remember the days when Amazon used to discount their merchandise? I do. Is not having to stop at the bookstore worth paying more than $10 extra per order? Not on your life. Browsing through a bookstore is hardly a painful experiencemost people, including myself, rather enjoy it. On top of it, Borders throws in the ability to get a cup of coffee and listen to some live music while browsing. The ultimate irony is that Borders and Amazon are partners, and when you visit www.borders.com, you end up essentially redirected to Amazon.

Few people are forming new companies with the Internet as their primary means of delivery. In a slow economy, with the kind of suspicion the business world reserves for anything related to e-commerce, its no wonder. In the not very distant future, however, Im predicting the rise of a new order of new Web-based companies that will come in strong and hard to challenge the status quoreal customer service, real discounts, and business processes that have been trimmed of all fat. When it happens, Ill be happy to write about these new companies.

Ill even be happy to attend their press launches, and sip a glass of moderately priced red wine and nibble store-brand chips and salsa.

The author can be reached for comment at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com, but thats not important right now, either.

Like what you've read? Go to past Dot Commentary columns.

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