The Hard-Fought Lessons of E-Commerce

In the world of electronic commerce I may have the best job possible.

After all, while company owners walk the tenuous New Economy tightrope, with their employees never sure about tomorrow, what I do is far less stressful. My job is to keep my eyes and ears open and try to put some perspective on Web merchandising and online transactions. (You’ll notice I did not use the word “spin.” I said “perspective.”)

What is most important in my line of work is to keep myself grounded and not allow myself to be overly impressed by mergers, acquisitions, alliances or even the highest profile commercial names coming into the game.

With all of that said, and a few years into this field now, here are the essential lessons I have learned about what it takes to stay solvent in the world of online selling.

In advance, I should say I fully expect to receive letters and messages refuting each of these lessons, but this is my story and I’m sticking to it:

E-Commerce 101

  • We’re all in this together: The real important element of studying e-commerce has everything to do with the cumulative nature of its evolution.

    So far we’ve learned that the public views online selling as a single entity, not as the sum of different parts. As a result, if one Web site makes a glaring mistake, it sullies the reputation of e-tailers overall. That goes for poor fulfillment, exposure of personal data or any of the other many errors e-tailers have already committed.

    In the brick-and-mortar world, if Sears makes a mistake, Kmart is not generally harmed by it. Online, if fails, Kmart affiliate can suffer consequences.

  • Attract the masses or die: Target marketing is one thing, but if an e-tailer’s focus is too narrow and its audience too small, chances are it will self-destruct.

    This may explain why luxury e-tailers are still struggling. Since most Americans are not luxury consumers, the target audience is by definition way too limited.

    Back To Basics

    Additionally, what e-tailers have done strictly to stand out in the crowd often backfires on them. Consider:

  • Free stuff doesn’t work: While savvy online shoppers are often willing to shop around for the best deals, inundating them with offers of free services or merchandise is not always the smartest tactic.

    Sometimes the act of giving away too much for nothing does nothing more than make the e-tailer look desperate.

  • Take it back, with a smile: Ask consumers what irritates them about online shopping and returns are always way up on the list.

    Somehow, many e-tailers still have not taken this to heart, burying their return policies deep within the site and making customers jump through hoops to return merchandise. Further, while re-stocking fees may be necessary on some items, some e-tailers have tacked on fees for returns that are unnecessary and unreasonable.

  • Keep it simple: Online customers want simplicity, from the visuals they encounter on the home page, to the manner in which they share their personal data, to the ways in which they send the product back if necessary.

    Hats off to for 1-Click buying and the easiest return policy I’ve experienced. Simplicity sells. Complexity repels.

    Safety and Familiarity

    Online shoppers are still unconvinced of the viability of electronic buying. Too many still view it as a novelty act on the part of some renegade merchants. It is up to the e-commerce community to change this misconception, and the sure road to credibility has everything to do with making shoppers feel secure:

  • The importance of safe shopping: Every time a single Web site errs in exposing the private information of individual customers, the ripple effect negatively affects the industry as a whole.

    Shoppers are still having reservations about revealing their credit-card numbers online, largely for this reason. Some time ago, when inadvertently revealed personal data of more than 50,000 customers, one wonders how much suffered for its rival’s negligence. Did I mention that we’re all in this together?

  • Where everybody knows your name: After security issues, the one thing that appears to have some meaning to consumers is personalization and customization. Greeting customers by name and allowing them to create their own shopping experience goes a long way.

    Staying Alive

    Right now, anything that goes a long way toward advancing the growth of online merchandising is critical. Which brings us to perhaps the most important lesson we’ve learned so far.

    That is, simply, never get too comfortable. Ask venerable brick-and-mortar retailers what they’ve learned over the years and they are likely to talk first about the importance of diligence. Likewise, ask any failed e-tailers about their biggest mistakes, and they are likely to talk first about becoming too comfortable too fast.

    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.

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