The E-Commerce Paper Chase

Recently, when the U.S. Congress passed a bill giving digital signatures the same legal weight as old-fashioned pen-and-ink signatures, the concept of a paperless world once again reared its intriguing head.

After all, the likes of Palm and Handspring are mustering every bit of energy possible to relieve the average person of their paper organizer, address book and business card. By the time wireless devices are networked together — thereby enabling users to access the Internet via cell phone while using a laptop keyboard — the need to print and carry will start to disappear in the rear-view mirror.

And when every person has a handheld device, complete with downloaded copy of the morning paper and electronic version of a theater ticket, the dream will be within reach.

But wait just a second. Maybe we should be careful what we wish for.

The Virtues of Paper

Suddenly, with all of the rhapsodizing about technology and what it will do to lighten our collective loads, we seem to be forgetting that there is something called “too much of a good thing.” The high-tech world on the whole would be wise to step back for a moment and remember that people still want to buy products over the Internet and convert it, by necessity, into paper.

As matters stand presently, for example, Major League Baseball fans can buy tickets to every team’s games via the Internet. But then tickets must be mailed, time permitting, or picked up at the ticket window in order for that fan to gain entry to the ballpark.

Of course, in some future incarnation of ticket sales, the ticket itself will probably go by the wayside. But the question is, why? If a fan had access to a Net-ready printing device — such as the kind being touted by Hewlett-Packard (HP) — a team could sell its tickets over the Internet and then allow the buyer to print them out at home.

Aside from reducing handling expenses, the process would retain the not-so-small pleasures that come from holding a ticket to an event and then tucking the stub into a box as a souvenir.

In the Mail

The Web-to-paper transition goes even further. HP is also touting the convenience of being able to print a Web site with a single click and to receive a document that actually looks like the page seen on the screen. Essentially, even if a page is in a frame or loaded with graphics, users will be able to recognize it on the page.

Then, as confidence in the security of the technology grows, companies will be able issue checks to remote freelance workers or vendors without printing and mailing costs.

In fact, even the notoriously stodgy United States Postal Service (USPS) is hedging its bets by trying to make itself relevant to both a paperless world and a world where the printing is done by end-users — and not by corporations with mailrooms.

Acting on Impulse

I suppose that in the end, the extent to which the average person embraces technology is entirely personal and not always based on some earth-shattering event. In my case, while recently browsing a Web site, I impulsively decided to buy a back issue of a related magazine that was being sold through the site. I clicked through, finalized my transaction, and waited. For four weeks.

By the time the magazine arrived in my mailbox, not only had I lost interest but I had actually forgotten why I wanted to buy it in the first place.

Now, the site that sold me the magazine already had my $4.95 (US$) safely tucked away in a safe somewhere, so my memory loss had no impact on that sale. But the odds of me ever buying another back issue from them are quite small.

On the other hand, if I could have had the magazine transferred to me for the same price, I could have printed it out immediately and started reading it within minutes. Not only does the company make a satisfied customer, but they also transfer the cost of printing the magazine to me, boosting their margin.

A nice fit all around, in other words. And unfortunately, that type of win-win situation is all-too rare in the world of e-commerce. A paperless world is still a worthwhile goal to pursue, but as far as I can tell, typewriters, fountain pens, and transistor radios still co-exist with their more technologically advanced brothers.

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

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