Is E-Commerce Being All It Can Be?

Recently someone asked what seemed a pretty straightforward question. He had a Web site that advertised that he breeds and sells show dogs. Through that site, he has made initial contact with several people who, after meeting him offline, have bought dogs from him. In other words, they became customers.

His question: Was that e-commerce? I felt then, and still do, that it is. Does it meet the traditional pure-play e-tail definition, where the dogs are bought sight-unseen and shipped via UPS to distant customers?

Of course not. But it is time that e-commerce got over that definition and started to be all that it can be.

Credit Where Due

That question actually came up during a radio interview I did about e-commerce on a show called “The Digital Hour,” which is broadcast out of Detroit, Michigan. The co-hosts of the program, as I recall, weren’t as convinced as I was that the above scenario fit into the e-commerce cubbyhole.

But that cubbyhole, over time, has become much larger and much less easy to define. When all e-commerce consisted of pure-play Web companies, it was easy to spot e-commerce. It was a purchase made via the Web, a transaction between two parties who never spoke by phone or met in person.

Fast-forward, though, to the end of 2001, and the picture is a lot less clear. Consider the Amazon/Circuit City partnership. If I buy a product online and pick it up at the store, is that e-commerce?

OK, maybe that’s an easy one. The transaction took place online, after all. So is that the test? If virtual money travels over the Internet, then e-commerce has been conducted; that seems clear. But let’s muddy the waters a bit more.

What if shopper X spends two hours — and by most accounts, this would probably happen while shopper X was at work — researching which DVD player to buy. After whittling down the choice of models he focuses on which retailer to buy it from. He likes Circuit City’s offerings and decides to buy from them.

He has to go to the store to pick the thing up anyway, so why not just pay for it there? Is that e-commerce? I say it is. The buying process is just that, a process. It doesn’t begin or end with money changing hands.

Long Process

It starts way back where the consumer decides he or she wants or needs something and commits to searching it out, and it ends long after the sale is closed, when he or she tells two friends about the shopping experience they just had.

If the Web plays a role in any of that, be it decision-making, content help, customer service or anything in between, e-commerce should get credit.

Now, doing that accounting is not an easy thing. We all like to have hard numbers, but the actual dollar amounts now being bandied about regarding the fourth quarter, and 2001 as a whole, are a drop in the real bucket — a fraction of the contribution that e-commerce actually makes to the overall economy.

Chances are that what the powers-that-be call e-commerce will come in at or above 1 percent of total consumer spending for 2001, when the U.S. government reports its own figures.

But e-commerce shouldn’t just take comfort in knowing it had a role in a big chunk of the rest. It should stand up and start taking credit as well.

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 AM an Internet Business Development specialist for a major newspaper company – I develop and implement advertising web sites and train print reps on how to sell online advertising. I have been in the Internet space for 4 years. I also teach E-Commerce and Marketing at the Art Institute of Colorado to Multimedia students- and very first thing I tell them is E-Commerce is NOT buying something online – E-Commerce is exactly what the words mean- electronic commerce – any type of transaction occurring on an electronic medium. Commerce, according to, means “The buying and selling of goods, especially on a large scale, as between cities or nations. OR

    Intellectual exchange or social interaction”

    Electronic Commerce did not originate with the Internet- rather, it came to be when the house-sized supercomputers were adopted by banks in the 60s and our bank transactions were recorded in a database- or with any other form of transactions taking place over electronic mediums.

    I agree with the key points of your article- the general public uses the term E-Commerce in reference to buying on the web, and they absolutely must realize that buying on the web is just one form of E-Commerce. The term has been a misnomer from the start. Your article articulates the reality. I just think we need to continue to educate the public on the real history of E-commerce.

    Thank you – Laurel Lane

  • yes it’s e-commerce but it may not be so commercial (in the short term) …

    It costs money for, say, 10 businesses to put up websites, but in your scenario, mainly it is the consumer who reaps the benefits in terms of ease of finding product information. Only 1 business wins the purchase. Has anyone has managed to reduce other costs?

    Is it worth it?

    Yes for complex purchases which would have required more staff time to explain/demonstrate a product, but in terms of commodities – only if long-term shopping behaviour moves to the internet (and reduces catalogue or other advertising costs).

    In the commodity case, it is a short-medium term expense made for the sake of long-term survival. Maybe marketing has to move people this way, with good offers only available from the web.

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