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 The Brancatelli File

joe THE GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST:
E-COMMERCE FORGETS THE COMMERCE


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

March 2, 2000 -- A question for all the technical wizards out there: What part of E-commerce don't you understand?

Judging from friends and neighbors who were driven to bricks-and-mortar stores during the final moments of the Christmas buying frenzy, I gather it's the "commerce" part of E-commerce. So let me make it simple for you. Invent all the shopping bots, virtual malls, secure sites and 1-click order subroutines you want. None of it means jack if you don't have products to sell to customers.

See, that's the tricky part. No matter how cool you make your shopping sites, they are failures if they don't deliver the goods. Literally, I mean. People want to know that after a hard day of shopping--be it at the mall or on the Net--they will actually come away with some goods. You know, stuff. Products.

I know you've been bombarded with horror stories about the collapse of the Internet infrastructure over the Christmas holiday. But I don't think you fully understand the damage you've done. You've set back the cause of the electronic economy for years to come.

A parent whose kid didn't get their doll under the Christmas tree because an Internet merchant screwed up won't be fooled again. They won't give you a second chance because they don't want to risk seeing that crestfallen look in their child's eye ever again. A guy who turned to the Net for help a week before Christmas and got a virtual slap upside the head won't be back the week before next Christmas. He'll just head for the scarf bar at Macy's or Nordstrom's. And you don't even want to know about the wrath of a female shopper scorned.

The Ghosts of this Christmas Past--one retail analyst I trust believes Internet merchants lost one dollar in potential sales for every dollar in revenue captured--will haunt even your most ardent supporters. People like me, an Average Joe who has always given an E-merchant an even break.

I'm actually an early adopter of E-commerce. I've been buying books and videos and computers and supplies over the Internet for years. I've purchased jewelry, scalped sports tickets and even ordered coffee filters. But shopping for anything online this Christmas was hideous--especially since my local retailers had the very same products you folks forgot to stock.

Two stories will suffice, I think.

As one of her Christmas presents, my wife requested a cat bed for the tiny stray that adopted us on Memorial Day. Knowing precious little about felines, I hit the web in mid-December and checked out three big-name, heavily advertised pet-dot-com sites. All three had essentially the same item: a domed fleece-and-fabric bit of ephemera that cost about $25.

I clicked to order from one site only to be told they were sold out until after Christmas. Site two was back-ordered until sometime after the millennium. But, no matter, because site three said it had 43 units in stock. So I clicked to order, requested overnight delivery, surrendered my credit-card number, pushed the button and, voila! My confirmation form said, "Your order will be shipped in six to eight weeks."

Not good enough less than two weeks before Christmas. So I called the site and got a cheery customer-support person.

"What's it gonna take to get one of those 43 units out of your warehouse and into my house by Christmas?" I asked.

"I'm sorry," said the cheery CSP. "We're out of stock."

"But your site says you have 43 units available."

"We have 43 in stock, but we already have 128 orders on hand," explained cheery CSP. "So, obviously, we don't have one for you right now."

Now I might have delved further into the Mystery of the Missing Cat Bed if only I didn't have other shopping to do. My wife also wanted four digital cameras as gifts for various relatives.

So after striking out on cat beds, I surfed to CNET.com, did my homework, and settled on a Kodak model that seemed to be an excellent combination of price, features, quality and ease of use. Ah, I thought, this is what E-commerce is all about!

I clicked the "Compare Prices" icon and CNET brought me to a chart of 46 online merchants. What an embarrassment of riches, I thought.

I clicked on the merchant selling the camera for the cheapest price--hey, I'm no fool!--and got taken to that site. Out of stock. No problem. I went back to the chart, clicked on second cheapest merchant, got to that site and was told "out of stock." Well, so much for the low-ball sites, I thought. I clicked at random on a merchant selling the camera for about $100 more. No stock. Then another. No stock. Then a third. No stock.

Alarmed, I returned to the chart and methodically clicked on each of the 46 merchants served up by CNET. Not one had the camera available for Christmas delivery.

My twin tales of unrequited E-commerce would normally end here. Except for the fact that my wife sent me out into the real world to shop for groceries and sundries on the Monday before Christmas. And that meant a 7-mile drive to Wal-Mart and the adjacent Sam's Club.

At Wal-Mart, I was careening through the aisles when the crush of traffic diverted me through office supplies, past housewares and to the portal of the pet department. What the hell, I thought. I wandered down an aisle, came to cat supplies, and looked up. Teetering from the top shelf were at least two dozen cat beds. Same domed shape I saw on the pet websites. Same fleece-and-fabric construction. Four dollars cheaper, too.

At Sam's, I grabbed a flatbed cart and stocked up for the Y2K crisis that never came: 12 gallons of water, beans, crackers and several cases of crushed tomatoes. Almost accidentally, I steered through the computer section and came to a locked display case filled with expensive, easy-to-steal accessories: PDAs, printer cartridges and--surprise!--the Kodak digital camera unavailable from any web site.

After scaring up an "associate"--no easy task, I admit--I asked the obvious question: "You don't actually have any of those Kodak cameras, do you?

"Well, said the pleasant associate, "let's check."

We made our way to a corner of the cavernous warehouse, she unlocked a huge wood-and-wire cabinet, and stuck her head in. "I have about a dozen here," she said. "Do you want one?"

"I'll take four," I said, barely able to contain my glee.

"Well," she said, "you know, these things aren't cheap. They're $319 each."

"What? $319?" I yelped.

"So you just want one, right? They are expensive."

"Are you kidding," I said. "That's $50 cheaper than the lowest price I could find on the web."

I piled the cameras on my cart, checked out and drove home with my cat bed, my cameras, my groceries and my Y2K tomatoes. Now our stray snoozes in fleece and our relatives happily snap digitized photos.

That, my technical friends, is called commerce. You sell things, I buy them and all is well with man and beast.

What part of that don't you understand?

This column originally appeared at Byte.com

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.