Take a Bow, E-Commerce

The early numbers themselves are reason to applaud, take a bow and celebrate: E-tail spending apparently doubled over last year’s level. A 100 percent increase in anything is impressive, but what makes the numbers even more startling are the circumstances under which that increase happened.

Because e-tailers were restrained during e-holiday 2000 in ways they could never have imagined a year ago. And the fact that big numbers were put up on the board once again should give many a skeptic reason to reconsider.

Welcome, Newcomers

Now, comparisons are always dicey, and this exercise is no exception. Many a dot-com that helped fuel the total last year is long gone. And much of the increase came from the brick-and-click wing of e-commerce — Kmart’s Bluelight.com was up something like 1,200 percent. But that factor is no reason to downplay the achievement. In fact, everyone is welcome under the e-commerce tent as long as they contribute to the bottom line.

And the bottom line is what’s important — for right now. There is much work still to be done to make the holiday season a success, of course. The return season is just now under way, and it will be a couple weeks before more detailed reports on customer service experiences, shipping success rates and other important specifics — such as who exactly did all this buying — are ready for digestion.

Limited Ammunition

E-tailers won this particular battle with fewer resources than they had a year ago. Even the most well-heeled e-tailers had to keep an eye on their marketing costs as they went forward this year — because they were in turn being watched by so many others. That meant fewer free shipping offers — or offers triggered by higher purchase prices — and little of the price-slashing that all but guaranteed sites would lose money a year ago.

And it was done without the glow of invincibility that hovered over e-commerce for the first quarter of 2000. Any half-aware shopper who went online from November on knew that the space was undergoing its own violent shakeout. Sites were falling by the wayside every day for one stretch. Yes, people did not flee.

It was done without the adrenaline rush of the hot new thing that pushed people online in 1999. Some first-time buyers probably got a kick out of the whole experience, but online shopping must have moved out of the category of fun novelty to useful alternative for many, many buyers. And that’s a solid progression.

Customers Worked Hard

Above all, the doubling was done, quite frankly, with hard work. And while e-tail sites should be applauded for all they did to get ready — actually having items in stock and making much more doable promises, for starters — much of that work came from the customers.

Clearly, many patiently withstood outages at Amazon.com and returned to buy, helping the e-commerce bellwether push 31 million units out the doors by December 23rd. Not quite a doubling from the 20 million last year, but Amazon started ahead of everyone else, so it gets a break.

The message can’t be — or shouldn’t be — that people don’t care about the downtime that Amazon suffered three separate times after Thanksgiving. It has to be that people have made up their minds to buy more online.

That type of perseverance is another bona fide reason to be optimistic in the new year.

Shrinking Pie

Mind you, all these gains also came amid what by all popular accounts is an otherwise down year for holiday spending. Consider that online shopping doubled while most real-world stores reported sales that failed to meet expectations. People in the malls were keeping their money in their pockets.

Can we draw any inferences from that divergence? Only hopeful ones, like that people will turn to the Web more during times when the economy worries them. After all, price comparison is much easier, and the car stays in the garage when you shop on the Web.

Worry Later

Whatever the specifics, we’ll learn them all in good time. And in those details will be some reasons for worry, no doubt. Repeating this fear may be next to impossible — to double holiday sales again in 2001 would require Herculean efforts. And maybe succeeding this year will cause a higher hurdle in the future: Will expectations be too high to meet?

But there will be time to worry about all that later. For now, e-tailers of all stripes should focus on the victory. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.

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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