February 13, 2001, 12:00 AM

Getting back to the basics

Recently I was invited by International Business Machines Inc. to participate in a day-long seminar that looked at the future of Internet technology and Web retailing. Being surrounded by IBM’s leading Internet minds and well-known academics from Harvard, The London School of Business and other top universities was, for me, quite a heady experience.

All morning and afternoon we met as a group and in breakout sessions discussing how the Internet store of 2002 will look and perform. But as my colleagues talked all about faster site access and data collection, it occurred to me that online retailers now-and in 2004-have more important things to worry about.

The technology issues will take care of themselves. In our very first issue, Dan Nordstrom, co-president of Nordstrom Inc., predicted that it won’t be too long before streaming video, three-dimensional imaging and other applications would be standard fixtures on almost every merchant’s e-commerce site. I agree that day isn’t far off.

Online retailers will simply have to stay current with Internet technology or they won’t keep pace with their customers-or competitors. But I also think that retailers now-and five years down the e-commerce road-need to concentrate on the basics. By that I mean taking a step back and looking long and hard at performing the retailing fundamentals: providing good customer service and merchandise at a fair price.

What’s the point of having the fastest-loading store on the Internet if the retailer’s core policies-privacy, shipping, handling, order cancellation and return information-are so buried that shoppers have to perform an advanced search just to find them? Why bother spending a pile of money on personalization software to learn all about your customers if you, the retailer, take days to respond to e-mail or don’t list a phone number on the site shoppers can call if they have a question?

You might think that Web retailing is all about technology-servers, systems integration, traffic analysis and shopping carts. But I would ask that you think again. There are many merchants going online today that still must learn to become retailers. Adding the latest technical bells and whistles to your Web store will give you a competitive edge in the short run. But for the long haul assume that the customer is (almost) always right and give them what they want most: clearly displayed information and good customer service. You’ll probably find that the corresponding jump in sales and profits will pay for that broad band connectivity you’ve been hearing all about.

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