Finding not one but three articles about online shopping in your June 18 issue, I feel moved to write with another viewpoint that seems to have eluded your correspondents. They see obstacles to online commerce emerging through fear and lack of trust at the consumer end.
While these are important issues, they are dwarfed by the one overriding factor that prevents a boom in e-commerce in the UK and Europe.
I recently commissioned my own market study on the potential of online trading and the results were conclusive – the major barrier to overcome is the almost complete lack of good shopping sites.
Much of the research that points to disappointing online sales figures has not taken into account the fact that there are very few sites that deserve good sales.
As Esther Dyson has pointed out, the prime concern for shopping site owners is in providing the user with a good “shopping experience”. Sites that do not provide consumers with easy and convenient methods of purchasing goods are doomed to failure -and I believe we have seen several examples of this in the UK alone (BarclaySquare springs to mind). Sites that do provide a good shopping experience have proved very successful – Amazon and CDNow are good examples, with high sales and a loyal customer base to show for it.
The market is there, but very few know how to exploit it.
The fact that even the most successful shopping sites are struggling to show a profit is not an indication that they have got it wrong. But developing a retail outlet is an expensive process, and looking for quick returns is foolhardy.
We must, also, not forget that the Internet is just another medium. Too many of us, especially within the new media industry, seem to be caught up in the Marshall Mac-Luhanite philosophy that there is something inherently special about the Internet. There is not. Everybody seems to be trying to grab the medium for their own, but the successful online businesses are those which have realised that it’s what you do with it that is important.
Ask yourself this – what is the main difference between traditional mail order and online ordering? Answer: the media. Using the argument that consumers are reluctant to provide their credit card details to unseen and unheard third parties will come as a bit of a surprise to the plethora of successful mail order companies.
The fact is that mail order companies provide an easy and convenient way of purchasing goods, and online sites that can provide the consumer with the same levels of satisfaction have every chance of success. Several sites have managed this and are well-lauded for it, but they are in the minority.