As E-Commerce Vultures Circle Overhead

Traditionally, when the lights go out, you’ve had two choices: You can light a candle or you can curse the darkness. But thanks to e-commerce, there’s a third choice: Capitalize on others’ misfortunes.

Businesses have long been using the bad luck of others for their owngains.

But e-commerce has taken it to a whole new level, from dot-comcarcass-picking at asset auctions to a spate of public relations effortsaimed at the bad luck of thousands of California residents facing a power crisis.

These tactics, however hard to look at, often work. So we’d better get used to them.

Feel Their Pain

Ourhouse.com was one of the first e-tailers to swallow hard and wade intothe California rolling blackout fracas with a press release and a gimmick.

Ourhouse used the early days of the unfolding power crisis — a crisis that seemed at the time to be on course to crash the high-tech economy — to unveil acontest for Web surfers. The winner would get a year’s worth of utility billspaid for them.

To go anywhere near what had the potential to be a major economic,political and social crisis took a lot of guts. As often happens, gutspaid off. Ourhouse was recently listed among the top 10 biggest onlinetraffic gainers by Jupiter Media Metrix.

Stocking Up

Not to be outdone, Internet grocer Peapod recently made this pitch to itsblackout-frazzled San Francisco customers: “Peapod is prepared to help BayArea residents survive this temporary crisis by providing everything theyneed to get through rolling blackouts.”

Presumably, “everything” consists largely of cans of tuna and othernon-perishables as well as flashlight batteries. Everyone needs those items, and hey, Peapod argued, it’s better to have the stuff delivered. You don’t want to be driving aroundwhen the streetlights and traffic signals are on the blink.

In Peapod’s case, it’s hard to tell if the ploy was effective, but the e-tailer does have a foothold in San Francisco and probably saw some spike insales for the reasons outlined in its pitch.

Bad Taste?

But all the exploitation of the energy crisis is enough to make me wonder if somewhere there’s a dot-comwith a press release ready to go out in case of nuclear war.

Someone’sprobably already written the copy: “It could be thousands of years beforeit’s safe to drink the water again. Why not stock up now?”

While identifying and profiting from needs is a standard business practice, the dot-com examples seem to gobeyond the usual “striking while the iron is hot” mentality. They don’t just bounce off a news story or an up-and-coming trend, but rather seek to capitalizeon something that is causing a lot of people a lot of pain and heartache.

Nature Channel

This trend is about desperate times and measures that match. It’s the sameimpulse driving people to the growing number of dot com-asset auctions,where computers and whiteboards go for a fraction of their cost.

It’s the same impulse that led a headhunter to drive over to the parking lotof a Web consultant outside of Boston after getting wind that all 240employees were being laid off. The headhunter handed out his condolencesfor lost jobs along with a lot of business cards.

The fact is that someone always stands to benefit from another’smisfortunes. That’s no more true in e-commerce than in the rest of life.

For the Record

The difference, however, is that right now, what’s going on in the dot-com world is so much a matter ofpublic record that every move is done in the glare of public attention. Unfortunately, some of the dot-com moves are hard to stomach.

But as long as such ploys work, there’s no stopping the e-commerce vultures from circling and swooping downwhenever someone’s in need.

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

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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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