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Why Can't E-Commerce Close The Sale?

By Paul A. Greenberg
Aug 1, 2001 4:32 PM PT

It appears there is a whole lot of window surfing going on at e-tail Web sites and not enough buying.

Why Can't E-Commerce Close The Sale?

That is the conclusion to be drawn from a recent study by the NPD Group, which indicates that 84 percent of those who have purchased something online in the past six months say that while they often look at products online, they usually buy offline.

Why can't e-commerce close the sale online? What's so alluring about the brick-and-mortar environment? Especially when the real-world store is selling the same merchandise at a higher price?

These questions keep cropping up, demanding an answer.

As it turns out, talking about why people research products online, but make their purchases offline, does not make for sterling cocktail party conversation.

Shaken, Not Stirred

When faced with the question of why people are hesitant to buy online, most of my friends and acquaintances either stare incredulously or dismiss the inquiry with a reference to how complicated the e-commerce process is or can be.

However, as someone who buys online regularly, I have to say that I don't find e-commerce transactions mysterious or complicated. Even with so many dot-com stores closing their doors, I find it simple to buy what I want on the Internet -- whenever I want.

The problem is convincing the already-wired masses to do the same.

Surfing in Place

The average consumer considering a new purchase requires that at least two elements be part in the shopping experience: human contact and something -- anything -- that would suggest the seller is credible in the marketplace.

That might explain a finding by Jupiter Media Metrix earlier this summer that just a few Web sites -- including AOL/Time Warner, Yahoo! and Microsoft -- control 50 percent of online user time. AOL/Time Warner and Microsoft make the nightly news regularly, creating an image of omnipotence online, while strains of "Do You Yahoo?" play with some frequency during commercial breaks.

Familiarity breeds credibility in the new world of the Internet. Unfortunately, the traffic reports might be leading smaller companies online to believe that their survival depends on getting swallowed by a major player.

But the little guys have another option: make some noise in the marketplace and fill a unique need among the consumer base. The surfers will start spending dollars.

Starting Young

Meanwhile, Jupiter also reports that teens -- who routinely use the Internet as part of their lifestyle -- like to shop online, but without credit cards, many are unable to push the virtual shopping cart through the checkout lane.

Will current e-tail sites survive until today's teens are old enough to flash plastic? That depends on reassessment of current online selling techniques.

For example, why don't more e-tailers follow the lead of companies like Saksfifthavenue.com and offer live help online. It's as simple as using familiar instant messaging technology and it offers customers an opportunity to ask questions in real time with a representative of the site.

Call for Service

And what about some greater emphasis on quality of personalized service? When I bought an electronic device from an e-tail site, a service rep called the next morning to verify my order. That was encouraging, until the service rep called me Mr. Green instead of Mr. Greenberg.

Even if service mentality among businesses in our culture has waned in recent years, online businesses have to bolster their service in any way possible. Closing the sale online requires not only that the merchant fill a need, but also that the quesions asked later are answered.

Soon Enough

Still, if Web sites are influential enough to cause users to sign off and drive to the mall and make purchases, why are they not able to take that next step in causing the customer to order the merchandise online?

In sales circles, the close is often called the big "get." Everything else in the marketing process is window dressing.

Which brings us back to the adolescent contingent. Since most of them cannot buy online, now is the time for forward thinking e-tailers to establish lasting relationships with them. If teens become familiar with particular merchants now, they will enthusiastically use their shiny new credit card to go that all important additional step.

One might think of everything before that as something akin to driving with a learner's permit.

Blues Note

Further, businesses that operate with multiple channels would do well to create a comfort level with online usage inside the walls of their brick-and-mortar stores.

Kiosks and other in-store technology could go far in helping younger or less Web savvy consumers incorporate Internet usage and buying into their lifestyles.

It's time to get over the shakeout blues and move forward with the next stage of e-commerce.

It's time to close the sale.

What do you think? Let's talk about it.

Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

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