E-tailers: Speak Up!

Like millions of other American consumers, I spent several hours in a shopping mall the day after Thanksgiving.

It was an old-fashioned between-holidays shopping excursion, with trips to Gap (NYSE: GPS), JC Penney (NYSE: JCP), et al — and completely devoid of any mention of e-commerce.

That is the part that seems so odd. Why doesn’t e-commerce have more of a presence in the brick-and-mortar shopping world? Better yet, why are so many retailers failing to promote their Web sites in mass media?

Gap Dot What?

An item at Gap seemed an ideal gift for a relative, but it was not available in his XXL size. When I asked a salesperson if it would be possible to find the item online, she responded with a confused stare:

“Oh, I don’t know anything about that kind of stuff.”

That kind of stuff is supposed to be a significant part of Gap’s business plan these days. Why was the Web site so foreign to the sales person?

Compounding the problem, there was no handy kiosk at Gap. In fact, in the entire mall, there was no computer for customers to use, except at a computer store.

Silent E-Tailers

The experience at Gap is common. Unfortunately, the channels through which many companies sell their merchandise are still suffering from a case of tunnel vision.

Many Web sites say little about brick-and-mortar locations, and physical stores rarely seem to even mention Web addresses.

Gap, to its credit, has always allowed shoppers to purchase items online and return them at the mall stores. Most other retailers, however, have a division between channels as formidable as the one between church and state.

It is high time for e-tailing to raise its own profile, through multichannel marketing, in-store promotions of associated Web sites, and more interactivity among channels.

Do You Yahoo?

The more forward-thinking among online merchants have figured out the power of mass media, as it relates to their bottom lines.

Yahoo! Shopping (Nasdaq: YHOO), for example, saw fit to spend a bundle on newspaper advertising. Best Buy (NYSE: BBY), in the midst of a major brick-and-mortar expansion, prominently points to its own in slick, compelling, yellow and black newspaper ads, as well as throughout its stores.

Their timing could not be better, particularly since the holiday online shopping season has begun with much fanfare.

Yahoo! Shopping projected that its day-after-Thanksgiving sales would be 60 percent higher than last year and ended up beating its own prediction. Could that have something to do with its catchy television ads and seductive print ad campaign?

Selling Points

However, even those Web sites that have raised their public profiles through in-store promotion and traditional advertising are missing out on some unexpected unique selling propositions.

For example, it would make sense to promote the ease with which online shoppers can ship their packages. Consumers who travel for Christmas would benefit by not having to contend with cumbersome security checkpoints through which packages must pass.

Further, the American public, in its “nesting” mode since September 11th, is primed for ad campaigns that stress the ease of online shopping in the comfort of their own homes.

The ethics of such campaigns are up for debate, but strictly from a sales standpoint, handled carefully and tastefully, such targeted ads could yield increased revenues right now.

Lessons Learned

E-tailers have learned a lot in the past few years about the importance of branding, the critical need for efficient fulfillment and shipping procedures, and the challenge of building consumer trust online.

Now it is time for them to work harder to become part of the mainstream American consumer culture. Newspaper and television ads, in-store kiosks for those with a brick-and-mortar presence, and in-store personnel with a stronger awareness of “that kind of stuff” could go a long way in capturing consumer attention.

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.


  • I had an experience similar to the author’s experience at The Gap. I went into a Kmart store to buy some linens that were advertised in a newspaper ad. The store was out of the sheets in the size and color I needed. I found a computer terminal that is supposed to let you access The terminal was frozen. An employee directed me acoss the store to another terminal, but when I got there that terminal had been removed. Brick and mortar stores don’t really seem committed to including their e-commerce operations under their conventional roof.

    I don’t get it.

    • I think the major reason that e-tailing is not meeting expectations is that we (businesses) continue to look at applications like the web and the store from the businesses’ point of view instead of the customer’s. A Best-Buy ad on the TV recently promoted “shop on-line… pick it up at your local store”. Now that’s the ticket!

      Why doesn’t Barnes & Noble offer the same service? They have too much of an inward focus! Think like a consumer… history be damned and the solutions will be blindingly obvious.

  • Many companies cannot integrate their brick-and-mortar and on-line stores because of the current inequity in the collection of sales taxes. The Supreme Court has ruled that remote retailers (catalogs, e-tailers) do not have to collect sales taxes if they do not have a physical presence (store, warehouse) in the state of the buyer. So, many retailers have separated their online and brick-and-mortar operations to ensure that the online subsidiary does not have to collect sales taxes. If the stores provide internet kiosks and integrate the online and in-store operations, then the retailer would have to collect sales taxes on online sales.

    This is a bad policy that has prevented retailers from implementing a “bricks and clicks” strategy.

    Congress should tell the states to simplify their sales tax systems and if they achieve simplification, then the states should be allowed to require all retailers to collect sales taxes equally.

  • The concept appears sound and can benefit the corporate bottom line. However, the way corporate AM erica operates and measures their product line(s), stores and other business lines as individual P&Ls does not encourage the correct behaviour and does not track the value of the internal advertising for another line of business (typical arrangement) or product line.

    Thus, one product/business line cannibalizes the other, resulting in one entity failing to meet their financial metrics (even possibly the closure of a store). The smaller business can potentially manage this better because the principals are typically the product line managers. So, this is not as easy to do as it is to say from the outside. Can these big entities sustain this approach over tight times and time?

  • Retailers would love to have a bigger presence in e-commerce. Employees, however, are not stakeholders and do not receive any incentive to advertise or recommend their companies’ website. Why should employees put their job security at risk?

  • You ask: “Why doesn’t e-commerce have more of a presence in the brick-and-mortar shopping world?” The short answer is because e-commerce isn’t as profitable as traditional retail. And unfortunately, that can’t change until the primary function of the bricks-and-mortar — to store — is added outside of people’s locked front door.

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