Downloading A Sweater
It's a familiar routine: I go online to buy a product. I can see it a digital picture
of it. I can ask to chat with a sales representative online. Companies can direct
additional marketing or upselling at me, electronically. I enter my credit card into the
computer. The purchase can be tracked. All electronically.
But there's one element of the whole process that still needs to be accomplished more
or less in the old-fashioned way: warehousing and shipping. This is the tricky part about
e-commerce that rarely gets attention. I can't download clothing. A dot com company can't
store specialty Belgian chocolates on its intranet. When it comes down to actually
supplying your flesh-and-blood customers with their physical products, someone still needs
to pick and pack these items by hand. Not a big problem for the Very Big Corporation of
America.com. They can maintain their own resources. But what about the small companies?
Those same companies that were breathed into existence by the birth of electronic
commerce? Often, these companies are run out of very small offices, or even homes. Not a
warehouse in sight. Who will do their product fulfillment and store their goods?
Very smart shipping and warehousing companies wise enough to see the enormous
opportunities e-commerce has presented to them, that's who.
Storage And Fulfillment For Small Business
The usual suspects have already announced their intentions to the e-commerce universe. In
September, Federal Express announced the
launch of a suite of services designed to help businesses selling over the Internet. Three
APIs, called FedEx ShipAPI, FedEx TrackAPI and FedEx intraNetShip, were designed to allow
companies to connect their applications to Federal Express information systems via the
Internet for the purpose of automating the shipping and package status tracking processes
United Parcel Service (UPS) has also entered the fray
with the introduction of its UPS Internet Tools. The product suite includes UPS Tracking,
which allows customers to track their packages off a seller's Web site; and UPS Quick Cost
Calculator, which enables customers to determine the shipping costs for their purchases
and view all possible shipping options.
Telebyte, Inc., a provider of data communications
connectivity solutions, has announced its intent to introduce a system called
DeliverNextDay.com, an Internet-based business-to-business express fulfillment system.
Vendors using the service can place a button on their Web sites linking to the
DeliverNextDay.com site. Customers can then place and track orders online 24 hours a day.
Orders placed during the business week before midnight Central Time can be delivered by
10:30 (Central Time) the following morning. Companies using the service are informed
automatically when inventories are in need of restocking.
Another start up that opened its doors for business this year is iShip. The company, which offers a Web-based shipping
service designed specifically for e-commerce, is targeted at companies with relatively
modest shipping needs, such as small Web stores. iShip offers an array of information on
shipping rates, services and package delivery status from different shipping carriers. Web
merchants can choose the appropriate service for each package according to their needs.
The company's Sell It tools, designed for online sellers, allow merchants to offer
potential buyers accurate shipping estimates by allowing them to enter their ZIP codes and
preferred carriers. iShip then creates a hyperlink that merchants can paste right into
their online item descriptions. When shoppers click on the link, iShip.com asks them to
provide the remaining information (beginning with their ZIP or postal codes). Buyers can
then see a table of shipping alternatives and can evaluate their choices.
The tracking option is an important consideration with Web-based sales, even more so
than with traditional catalog sales. Previoulsly, people who ordered products via paper
catalogs expected and accepted a certain amount of waiting for their orders, and they knew
they could check their order status using the same toll-free number they'd used to place
the order. In a climate where "Internet time" moves even faster than the mind of
the average Netizen, we want to place orders immediately and we want our packages as soon
as we log off (well, almost). We're still not particularly convinced that the individual
answering our toll-free call is going to have knowledge of our Web transactions (for good
historically, in most cases, they won't). Electronic consumers are impatient
and still not completely trusting of a system in which we place orders without the help of
human intervention. As a result,customers today are more likely to want to track packages
than their mothers who, 25 years ago, would order new spring drapes from the Sears
Add Free Shipping To The Mix
The buzz in the e-commerce world, especially this holiday season, is free shipping. Many
online stores have very little in terms of product to differentiate themselves from one
another, so one method of doing so is superior customer service. A second method is
superior shipping options. Some companies have taken this latter method to the extreme,
and made shipping free. L.L. Bean did it with their catalog sales long ago, and it's one
of the elements that helped make them so successful. An alarming (or wondrously plentiful,
depending on which side of the e-commerce fence you're on) amount of sites have shown up
this holiday season boasting free shipping, usually for orders that total over a certain
amount. It's strong incentive to both get consumers to your site and get them to spend
more while they're there.
How are these companies doing it? By rolling the shipping costs partly into their
product prices, and partly by absorbing them into their own bottom lines. But if free
shipping ups traffic and pulls market share, it's an experiment well worth carrying forth
past the holiday season, if it can be made economically viable.
Despite 25 years of new technology, while I wait for my new sweater I'm in the same
situation as my mother, waiting for her new periwinkle blue window sheers in 1974. But
thankfully with a less silly hairdo.
Tracey S. Roth welcomes your comments at email@example.com.