Unsigned, Sort of Sealed – and Definitely Not Delivered

Riddle time: What do Girl Scout cookies, snow blower parts and a US$2 million waterfront home have in common?

Give up? Recently, all have been the focus of flailing attempts at e-mail-based e-commerce. And only one was successful.

All three go a long way toward revealing the potential — both good and bad — that e-mail offers as a conduit or helper for online commerce. And the lesson so far seems to be that by and large, people don’t take e-mail seriously enough for it to be a viable way to conduct business.

Water Views

I was directly involved in one of these e-commerce experiments and, alas, it wasn’t the $2 million house.

The house purchase is the subject of a court battle set to begin in Massachusetts later this spring. It seems that over a six-month period, equally eager buyer and seller exchanged e-mails hammering out a purchase price for the house in the little seaside town of Marion.

The issue now is whether those e-mails constituted a “signed” agreement. The real estate industry is watching closely, and e-commerce supporters should be, too.

Already, a judge has made a preliminary ruling to let the case go forward. The would-be seller is charging the bashful buyer, who tried to walk away from the deal, with breach of contract.

Sincerely Speaking

The judge has said that the typed names at the end of the back-and-forth e-mail missives may serve as the digital equivalent of signatures.

I’m not sure how wired the judge is, and he may even be right — someday.So far, though, people treat e-mail as a moveable version of post-it notes. It’s ideal for notions and thoughts, reminders and quick questions, and as a vehicle for transporting a host of documents. But not for binding $2 million offers.

My guess is that despite the lawsuit’s claims, neither seller nor buyer thought at the time that their e-mails constituted a contract.


But enough about multimillion-dollar waterfront estates. Let’s talk cookies. More to the point, let’s talk about the fact that this spring I am Girl Scout Cookie-less.

It seems that not one but two friends decided to encourage their children to use e-mail to collect cookie orders. No more door-to-door legwork, no phone calls.

At first, the idea thrilled me. This was grassroots e-commerce at its finest; person-to-person trading that would do EBay proud. Only it didn’t work.

One solicitation landed in my old e-mail account, the one I now use only in emergencies and check maybe two or three times a month. Though I’ve pleaded with everyone to update their address books, a couple of people insist on sending e-mail there. And that’s where the digital cookie order form landed and languished, unread.

The second friend managed to get through, and I quickly replied with an order. But the Girl Scout in question never received the order. My e-mail cookie request never made the trip from the e-mail inbox on my neighbor’s workplace computer to her daughter.

Striking Out

So far, that makes e-mail 0 for 2. The courts get a little more bogged down, and — more importantly — I go cookie-less.

But let’s end on a positive note. A friend of mine tells the story of his parent’s old snow blower. It’s so old that he remembers using it as a kid. So old that, naturally, it failed to start during the first snowstorm.

The company that made the snow blower is out of business. My friend performed a quick Google search and found a small engine repair shop in the snow belt outside Buffalo, New York, that had heard of the model in question.

An e-mail volley ensued, and the upshot was that the small engine repair guy suggested a similar part made by another snow blower manufacturer.

My friend decided to give it a try. It worked. Of course, it hasn’t snowed since, but that’s out of the control of e-commerce.

Catch the Snow Drift

What the industry can do, however, is help determine how e-mail develops as an e-commerce tool. The trick may be for companies to use it even more sparingly than they already do. Save it for big news and legitimate offers. Don’t bog down the inboxes of the world with special discounts and news of new font colors on the home page.

In fact, we can all try to follow that lesson. Does the world really need another chain e-mail about corporate catchphrases? I think not.

Let’s all save e-mail for important things. Like letting me know where I can still buy Girl Scout cookies.

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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