Is E-Commerce Cool Enough?

The purchase of RocketCash by free ISP NetZero last week is the latest evidence that e-commerce players are keen on capturing today’s teenage Internet users and locking them up as tomorrow’s customers.

And why not? Teens are free of the technology phobia that has kept others away from e-commerce. For them, life before the World Wide Web is not even a dim memory. That means they represent a whole generation of golden e-commerce opportunities. But wait — as usual, it is not going to be quite that easy.

Not Age, But Mileage

Though short on life experience in general, the average teen has logged many more hours surfing the Internet than the typical adult. And teens and young adults do spend money online.

Clearly, NetZero sees value in gaining access to the youth market. Forrester Research estimates that 16 to 22-year-olds will spend $4.5 billion (US$) online this year.

One factor that has kept teens from having an even more significant impact on e-commerce has been their inability to get credit cards. Since RocketCash addresses the problem by allowing young people to create their own online credit accounts, it makes a good fit for NetZero.

Other companies have taken similar approaches, knowing that once they gain more purchase power, today’s youth will supply the bread-and-butter for tomorrow’s e-commerce.

Cultivating teen shoppers is both a golden opportunity and a critical need. E-tailers who make the right first impressions can lay the foundation for long-term customer loyalty. Those who miss the boat with teens and young adults may soon find themselves lost in cyberspace.

Technology Comes Naturally

But it is going to take more than a few marketing agreements or slick brand images to capture the attention of today’s tech-savvy youth. According to John Fees, co-founder of eGrad2000, which targets consumers in the college senior market, “Older people have adapted to technology but [teens] have integrated it into their lives in a whole new way. It’s just as natural to them as cable TV.”

While it is obvious that teens will be the gravy train for e-commerce in five to ten years, it would be nave for startups to assume that a catchy domain name and a TV ad blitz are the only requirements for online staying power. Competition for the youth market may be the toughest e-commerce scramble yet.

Somewhere To Go

Teenagers surveyed by Forrester raved about movie retailer, and counted girl’s clothing sites and among their favorites. has already shut down its e-commerce department, but the site nevertheless offers some lessons for other dot-coms in terms of content and features that draw a young audience. One of Delia’s attractions is an interactive “lounge” where visitors can post pictures from their proms. The site also offers a database of summer jobs and internships.

Teen site provides opportunities for visitors to interact and build community through clubs, polls, chat and home pages. Virtually all of the site content is produced by teens. One popular feature is a page that allows members to show and sell tee-shirts they have designed themselves.

On the other hands, teens have given thumbs down to such sites as Shop@aol and MSNeShop and said they were not likely to go back to those dens of uncool any time soon.

Web sites must be more than relevant to young people. They must be perceived as essential in the same way that the suburban mall has become a destination — not just for shopping, but for hanging out. Something like a mall environment, but better — something that mixes commerce with entertainment, social interaction, and innovation — must be fashioned online.

E-commerce players have to find a way to make their marketing efforts a lot more sophisticated than they have been to date. Being cool is still the best way to attract a teen’s attention — and spending money — and being uncool is still the kiss of death.

Forrester points out that the vast majority of young people patronize e-tail sites they have heard about through word of mouth. To attract young shoppers, Web sites need to generate some buzz.

Same Old Whatever

Throwing out old formulas is a good way to begin. That means becoming a lot less dependent on conventional Web page and ad designs, for starters. Teens have been looking at the same flashing banners and clip art since the day their chubby kindergarten fingers first logged on. What some adults view as current, many teens see as old school.

Though the e-commerce world is just a few years old, that has been long enough for many dot-coms to develop habits that could be the death of them. Ideas that might seem jaw-dropping to thirty-something CEOs may draw yawns from a younger crowd.

E-commerce has to do a lot more than stay relevant — it has to continuously re-invent itself. Many teens fully believe they could not survive without the neighborhood mall, but they also admit that malls are essentially generic.

If online stores can create their own unique personalities while tapping into the need for community building that feeds the mall obsession — and top that with a dose of fresh technological appeal — the Internet’s future as an essential outpost for civilization will be bright indeed.

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

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