E-Commerce While You Work?

It probably surprised no one sitting at a desk to hear that Nielsen//NetRatings reported that 46 percent of all online shopping is done from work.

The recent study simply confirmed what many people knew first-hand. There are few places more convenient for Net shopping than work, where the connections are high-speed and the browser window can be hidden behind the spreadsheet with a flick of the wrist.

So one has to ask, what if employers decided to crack down sharply on the use of their time and technology for shopping? The answer, of course, is that e-tailers would take a hit that many would never recover from.

Purely a hypothetical notion? It might be comforting if it were, but employers have the motivation, the tools and maybe, with economic conditions turning on them, the will to turn the concept into reality. So it’s not too early to start addressing the issue.

Mixed Reactions

Employers respond in various ways to workers shopping on company time. Some take a laissez-faire approach, neither condoning nor encouraging it. Others actively encourage shopping at work, thinking that in a cut-throat labor market, if that’s what it takes to keep employees and keep them happy, then so be it.

Besides, if shopping at work prevents workers from stretching their lunch hour in order to race to the mall and back, savings can be found there as well.

However, a number of corporations are basically telling employees to do their shopping on their own time. Many are compiling lists of sites that employees are not allowed to use from work.

Shopping or Stealing?

That may seem like a Scrooge-like thing to do, but think about it. There are security reasons — every time a site outside the company network is engaged, the network is more exposed to attacks, viruses and other threats.

Then there are the economic reasons. Every minute an employee spends tabbing through a shopping site is a minute he or she could be spending doing their job. With many signs pointing to a U.S. economy cooldown, efficiency and cost cutting are going to become a lot more important than they’ve been over the past several years.

As a result, more employers may turn off a worker’s browsing privileges at work, or at least limit them to visiting sites that can in some way be related to their jobs.

If that happens, e-tailers are going to lose a big portion of their traffic — and a lot of their customers.

Another Digital Divide?

Certainly, e-commerce companies can tell themselves that some work-shoppers will adjust to browsing online stores at home with relative ease and patience. Other shoppers will moan about the loss of convenience as they make the switch from work to home.

But then there’s a third group of people — those workers who have no PC at home, meaning that the machine allocated to them by the boss to get work done is the only online shopping vehicle.

One need look no further to see how devastating a move to block workers from the Web would be to e-commerce. Not only would customers have to shift their habits, but many would be cut off altogether.

Think about it: Cut nearly half of the revenue stream out of any dot-com that strikes your fancy and what happens? (If you care to assume instead that many shoppers can and would find other means to shop online, fine, cut the revenue by 30 percent instead.) When you’re done crunching the numbers, you’ll see just how precarious and delicate this situation has become.

Time to Act

Fortunately, a widespread ban on workplace shopping is not likely to happen overnight. So there is time to develop alternative means of getting people online — like making interactive TV more prevalent and developing wireless Web services that do more than poke along. But not much time.

It’s hard to change people’s shopping habits, but if there are any efforts e-tailers can make for themselves to start easing the traffic out of the office and into the home, they should get under way quickly.

Hopefully, the dependence on workplace shopping won’t prove to be an Achilles’ heel for e-commerce, which has enough vulnerable spots already. But just like smart workers have backup plans — keep those resumes updated — e-tailers should prepare for the day when they too are asked to leave the office and never come back.

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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