January 2, 2007, 12:00 AM

Keeping up in a fast-moving game

Consumers have developed notions of what sites can do—whether they actually can or not—and expect merchants to deliver that experience.

One of the perks of my job is being able to see behind the scenes at online retailing sites. That doesn’t mean that merchants are pulling back the curtain. Rather, by virtue of covering this industry day in and day out, I know what retail web sites are capable of and so I notice certain features’ presence or absence when I’m shopping.

Because I need to know for my work who’s doing what, I keep a running commentary of my experiences that I refer to when we’re selecting speakers for our conference, sites for our Top 50 recognition, or retailers that we profile or that we go to for information for stories. I amuse myself every now and then by reading through my ongoing comments.

And when I review some of what I have come across over the years, I marvel that some of the companies are able to stay in business. For instance, I was listening to Internet radio at a small CD distributor’s site recently when I heard a piece of music I liked well enough to want to buy. This site pops up a little radio dashboard and listeners can click on the artist to link to a web page with CDs and ordering info. I clicked, went to the page, chose the CD, entered shipping and billing information, clicked submit. The next message I got was: “An error occurred. Please remember what you were doing and call the system administrator.” Right!

Lucky for them I really wanted this CD, so I assumed it was just a glitch. It was. The second time the order went through. But then a message appeared at the bottom of the order page: “You will receive an e-mail telling you if this item is available.” Alas, the e-mail told me they were out of stock. So a marketing program that was clever (free music in return for the chance to make a sale) fell down in the execution-not once, but twice.

This is not the only site that failed to deliver on a good idea-nor is it indicative of the size of sites with problems (at one major site I searched on books about the Mississippi River in preparation for a houseboat trip there and was hit with page after page of randomly ordered books that mentioned the Mississippi, including what seemed like every edition ever published of Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and Life on the Mississippi).

This all comes to mind when I consider the holiday shopping period that just ended. It was another outstanding year for online retailers, with sales up 25% over the year before-basically a repeat of recent history. That growth is testament to how much consumers love online shopping’s convenience and the ability to compare prices. But smart retailers know they have to keep getting better just to stay up. And the industry got a sobering statistic two weeks into December: ForeSee Results, which measures customer satisfaction with web sites, noted a dip in how pleased consumers were with their online shopping experience. The most likely explanation: Consumers have high expectations for what web sites can do and they encountered sites this year that weren’t keeping up. Or, even more frightening for e-merchants, consumers have developed notions of what sites can do-whether they actually can or not-and expect merchants to deliver that experience.

So as 2007 unfolds, the new challenge is going to be to stay ahead of the game, with new technology, procedures and marketing approaches. My promise is Internet Retailer will continue to do all it can to help you succeed. Happy New Year!

Kurt PetersEditor in Chief

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