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Tracey S. Roth

Dot Com Commerce

Managing Editor, CUSTOMER [email protected] Solutions

[February 7, 2001]

Things I Don't Want To Buy Over The Internet

It's not much of a revelation to anyone who reads the news regularly that the media has a morbid fascination for the death of dot coms. Almost every writer and editor has become an industry analyst lately, and it seems modern business professionals enjoy reading about e-commerce disasters in the way they would gape at a train wreck. Everyone has his or her own opinion. Security concerns are responsible for stagnating growth in e-commerce! The lack of live help disgusts shoppers who have piles of cash but no good Web sites on which to spend it! People are turned off by banner ads! Web sites collect too much of my private information! Things get ugly when poor management happens to good Web sites! People don't have enough bandwidth to shop! The fear of giant meteors circling the earth are distracting people from surfing for products!

I acknowledge that all these factors are considerations in the massive restructuring of the e-commerce industry. (Well, except for the giant meteorsI made that up.) I would, however, like to share a few random thoughts on the differences between the enthusiasm for e-commerce two years ago and the reality of the state of the union today. When it comes down to it, I think there are more than a few things that people just don't want to buy over the Internet. Here's a list. As you read it, play a game with yourself and try to name at least one Web-based company in each category that has closed its doors for good in the last year. Ready?

This was going to be a wave of the future, remember? Never set foot in a grocery store againgroceries delivered right to you! There are some problems with this concept. First off, I want to look at the stuff I buy. When I buy roast beef at the deli counter, I always demand to look at it first. I want it to be red, like meat, not brown, like my hiking boots. I buy produce depending on what looks good that day. If the tomatoes dent the linoleum when dropped on the floor, I avoid them. I also have few product loyalties: like many people, I buy what's on special.

Online grocery merchants also suffer from what I call "doctor's appointment hours syndrome." Deliveries can be made between 9:00 am and 4:30 pm Monday through Friday! Well, hooray. If I were home and able to take the deliveries between 9:00 am and 4:30 pm, I wouldn't have to order my groceries online, would I?

Pet Supplies
I don't know many people who have the foresight to know they are going to run out of pet food in five days. I have two cats, and when I run out of cat food, I usually pop open a can of tuna from my kitchen cabinet or some turkey lunchmeat from the fridge until I can run to the store around the corner and buy another bag of food. And I do all that without being patronized by a talking sock.

Some areas of the clothing market are booming onlineouterwear, for example. Men's clothing does pretty well, also. Online sales of women's clothing is in a bit of a slump. It doesn't take Einstein to figure out the reasons for this, particularly if you are female and have ever been in the dressing room of a Loehmann's. Maybe I'm atypical, but if I take 10 pieces of clothing into a dressing room, on average, I'll buy one. One. And that's with the ability to touch, see, and try on the clothes. Sizes vary wildly from manufacturer to manufacturer, and many shoppers aren't willing to take the risk that what they buy won't need to be returned for a different size, or just because the garment doesn't suit them. Practical considerations aside, many people enjoy in-store shopping for clothes, and find it therapeutic -- something a virtual shopping experience just can't accomplish.

Wine And Beer
There are loads of Web sites dedicated to the fine and worthy arts of wine and beer, most of which sell directly to consumers. The risk that a minor will use these sites to score party favors for a kegger while his parents are in Hawaii ("Dude, you just gotta try the '85 Chateau Lafitte!") is real enough, however, to necessitate I.D. verification upon delivery. Once again, if I were home during the day, I could just go to the liquor store and buy wine and beer. Plus, a lot of potential customers probably don't feel it's appropriate to have a box blatantly stamped "The Beer of the Month Club" delivered to the mail room at work. While many of these alcohol sites are dedicated to rare or hard-to-find bottles, I can't imagine many people using them to buy their table wine or party beer.

For safety reasons, this is another area where the checks and balances required may present more of a hassle to a customer than actually going to the pharmacy. I can imagine online drugstores are a time-saver for people who use daily medications in the long-term: heart patients or diabetics, for example. But for the consumer who occasionally fills a prescription for antibiotics during a bout of bronchitis or a muscle relaxant for sporadic back pain, these sites may not be as convenient as promised. Drugs cannot be left in your mailbox or at your back door. Additionally, some health care professionals have expressed dismay at the fact that it's much more difficult for an online pharmacy to know what other drugs a patient is taking, and as a result the likelihood of injurious or fatal drug interactions spikes to a frightening level.

Web Sites Seemingly Created Just To Generate Press
At least once a week, I hear about a Web site that seems to have been created simply to generate short-term buzz. One that pops to mind is a site that allows mourners to pay their respects online by viewing a funeral Web cast. (I'm not kiddingsee for yourself at www.funeral-cast.com/.) Imagine uttering these words to a friend: "My thought are with you now that your Uncle Herbert passed away. I'm sorry I couldn't make the funeral, but I did log on. He looked very peaceful." Puh-leeze.

I view some e-commerce ventures as Emperor's New Clothes-type scenarios. Everyone has a multitude of brilliant ideas why some businesses go belly-up, but many people fail to state the obvious. Technology gurus promise that in a few years, we won't have to leave our homes at all -- we'll be able to buy everything we need online. Isn't that something to look forward to! By then, you'll also be able to log onto the Web site of your therapist and confide in him that you're feeling really isolated from society.

Tracey E. Schelmetic welcomes your comments at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com.

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