Archived Opinion Editorial
Catching up to the past!
RUNNING BEFORE WE WALK?
Today's companies are eager to embrace the immense opportunities of online commerce, a medium which offers many new opportunities. Yet, even the most successful commercial sites fail to translate the lessons learned from centuries of land-based retailing into a successful online shopping experience for consumers. Why? Because technology and infrastructure—rather than consumer needs— are driving the development of e-commerce. If this new medium is to truly achieve its potential, more attention must be given to web content and activities which best support consumers.
Even though sales technology has changed, the way we humans process purchasing decisions has remained the same. We need to know that we'll derive certain tangible and emotional value from a product, that it will satisfy our needs. We care about a product's quality and whether its features and benefits are appropriate to our needs. And we care about whether a company stands behind its word and its product.
Contrary to media hype, web commerce represents not a Revolution but an Evolution. The web is simply a new technology used to facilitate an age-old process. Just as the telephone replaced or supplemented written correspondence in the selling process, the web has merely enhanced and expanded our ability to communicate and transact. Thus web shops can and should be able to provide the best delivery of goods, services, consumer value and customer service while successfully supporting long-term customer relationships.
STRETCHING A METAPHOR
To evaluate the effectiveness of consumer-oriented web shops, it's necessary to map the traditional sales model, with its accumulated reservoir of knowledge, to the web purchasing experience. By noting when the new technology fails to transfer valuable concepts from the old, we can improve web models in powerful and illuminating ways. Traditional models can be used to challenge new models, revealing their shortcomings.
How does an online store "greet the customer?" What does the virtual handshake "feel" like to the customer? How does the shopkeeper qualify the customer? And is this pre-qualification even relevant in the online shopping environment, where it may be more important for the customer to qualify the product (and thus determine if it meets his or her needs)? How is the product presented; how are objections overcome and questions answered? Where is the cashier and what is required to close the sale? And finally, if the product malfunctions or doesn't arrive when promised, where does the customer obtain help? These are critical questions, the answers to which should drive the design of online stores.
SELLING THE STEAK, NOT THE SIZZLE
In a land-based store the design of the physical space has less to do with the customer's access to product than in a web-based store, where visual presentation is integrally linked to technology. The consumer's experience in an online store reflects the level of software and hardware he or she uses. Vast sums are spent on creating visual wizardry, but only the most technologically-endowed customer can appreciate such effects.
Sometimes site design considerations— reliance on certain browsers, plug-ins, mandatory cookies, bandwidth, etc.—may inadvertently close the shop door on consumers and potential purchasers. Animated images, for example, may imbue a product with greater sizzle, but many customers simply don't have the technology to view animation. And no matter how much a steak may sizzle, online customers won't buy it if they can't hear it or see it!
AS ABOVE, SO BELOW?
A huge divide separates boardroom executives and web site designers in most online retail shops. We are forced to ask the question: Who is actually minding the shop? Does anyone in the boardrooms of virtual stores (without land-based counterparts) have significant retail experience to actually guide site development? Does anyone in the boardrooms of land-based stores with online shops have the web expertise to guide the translation of retail knowledge and experience into site design? We don't think so!
A considerable disconnect exists between boardroom executives and virtual-store designers. We know this because, if the gap didn't exist, online shop design would have incorporated more tried-and-true wisdom from traditional retailing. We must ask whether the Internet's quantum leaps of innovation are justified when they leap over the basics that work.
Does the medium's newness justify the roadblocks erected just as the customer enters a site? What land-based store could continue to exist if a guard stood at the door permitting entry only to customers wearing a particular brand of shoes (well, Hermes on rue Faubourg St Honore does this, but maybe they can afford to)?
Many online stores have been developed by a generation who grew up playing video games and are comfortable with technology and the Internet. Their perspective may be appropriate for designing sites, but isn't necessarily appropriate for designing successful online retail establishments.
Online shopping is a new medium, but shopping is an ancient human activity. Web shops currently fall way behind established successful business practices of the traditional retail enterprise. In order to take advantage of this new medium, we must incorporate lessons from the past.
Enter the debate!
What are your opinions on this subject? How do these issues affect your business?
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The preceding editorial was written by Shelley Taylor
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