How Worldwide Is the Web?

For all the talk about the World Wide Web, e-commerce is not so worldly after all. The Web may disregard international boundaries, but shoppers still must abide by the laws of their home country — and then some.

Recent controversy over the release of the first Harry Potter DVD underscores the problems and limitations of conducting transactions over the Internet, Yankee Group analyst Rob Perry told the E-Commerce Times.

The movie was to be released in the United Kingdom first, but wizard-hungry fans in the United States thought they could get their hands on Harry’s adventure “by ordering Harry Potter at Amazon UK.”

Of course, their efforts were thwarted, and issuers learned an important lesson about “trying to do simultaneous shipment,” according to Perry.

Futile Efforts?

That incident did not represent the first time people have tried to purchase a product not offered in their own country, although most such efforts are futile, Gartner analyst Adam Sarner told the E-Commerce Times.

“You don’t want to wait two to three days until [a product] ships when you can go around the corner to a store and buy” something on the day it comes out, Sarner said, calling the Web “just another channel.”

But he added that the Web does allow buyers around the globe to complete some unique transactions. “The ability to pick out a watch in Ohio that has been in someone’s drawer for years, that’s pretty good,” he said, referring to eBay.

But online commerce does not always dissolve international hurdles. Some products available on the Web and suitable for one society or culture may not work in another.

For instance, auto buyers in the United Kingdom who want to purchase a U.S.-made car via the Internet may find that some cars are designed for driving on the right side of the street.

Cultural Lines

Sarner said that to wring the most power from the Web’s worldwide reach, enterprises must make it a point to understand cultural differences among the countries with whose citizens they do business over the Internet.

In addition, translating Web site data from one language to another may create problems and surprises for would-be buyers. To remedy this e-commerce shortfall, many vendors, particularly in the customer relationship space, are adding support for as many languages as possible.

Talisma, for instance, claims it can accommodate millions of interactions daily in any language. The company’s CRM software suite boasts advanced support for multiple languages, including Spanish, German, French, Japanese and other Western European and Far Eastern languages.

Legislative Goulash

E-commerce also is hampered by different rules and regulations regarding taxation, privacy and user freedom — and sellers often can use only a limited number of payment methods.

“In some countries, they only buy things cash on delivery,” Sarner noted.

In addition, many countries restrict the types of goods and services their citizens can purchase, and other nations severely limit what vendors can sell to their citizens.

As Perry pointed out, privacy rules vary from country to country. “Europe has the Data Privacy Act as part of the EU, and it controls what data you collect and what you can do with it,” he said. That law can throw a wrench into an enterprise’s plans to personalize customer interactions and tailor marketing efforts to individuals.

Savvy Required

Before the Web can truly earn the “worldwide” moniker in the annals of e-commerce, companies will have to become more savvy when it comes to all these factors: shipping, taxation, payment, cultural differences, language differences and trade restrictions, among other variables.

“It’s little things like that that have to be figured out,” Sarner said. “There are only a … few global companies” that have finessed those details.

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