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e-Tailer or e-Failure

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In: Articles

By Nick Finck

Published on December 27, 2001

I am personally calling this the year of the e-Tailer. I have seen more hype in e-commerce this year than in any other holiday season in the past including the year the almighty Amazon.com launched it's e-commerce site. I consider myself an avid web user and I know what it takes to develop a full-fledged e-commerce site because I have been there in the trenches developing some of those sites in time for the holiday season. I have seen battles won and lost in as few as a week's time. Nothing turns me off more than a poorly constructed e-commerce site and this year, the numbers seem to be taking a turn for the worse.

Toys R' Us Like many web users, I try to find ways that the web can save me time. Previously I mentioned how I was able to save time and perhaps some money by ordering my groceries online from a place like HomeGrocer.com and now I have decided to take it a step further, to dive into the mass hysteria of holiday e-commerce shopping. I checked out a few sites, bought a few things with some success and browsed several windows. I was disappointed in the lack of simple logic that some of these e-commerce sites used. How hard could it be to sell a product online if you know everything there is to know about the product? Apparently a lot harder than Toys R' Us cares to know. That's right, the giant decided to close its e-doors to those wishing to order toys for the holidays. I could almost hear the screams from the millions of families with children who wanted that Pokemon GameBoy for Christmas. Similar problems happened at Amazon.com last year, there are even stories of the CEO himself packaging orders in the warehouse on Christmas Eve.

So why is that these business keep struggling to meet the holiday demand? What is it that causes these giants that ruled the retail world to struggle so much in the e-commerce world? Perhaps some analyzing of the current situations is in order here. Converting a once retail only company into a e-commerce giant is no easy task and it sure doesn't happen over night like most of these companies would like to believe.

Playing Hardball
I think part of the problem is that when these big companies jump into the e-commerce arena they forget some common factors that effect every company during the holidays. Shipping product takes man power and that the holiday season tends to slow the process down simply by the sheer volume of orders the mail service industry receives in that short period of time. Some e-Tailers know what it takes to get the job done and they incorporate an entire delivery division to handle these orders. While not all companies have the capitol to invest in such a large expansion, frankly, if they are going into the e-commerce industry, they can't afford not to put in that investment.

Lightning Fast
G-Shock Let me step back and explain some of the problems I have seen with the existing e-commerce sites from my own personal experience. One of the things that upset me was that these sites have a huge lack of information. For example, I went to beautifully designed G-Shock site to check out some watches. Once of the first things I noticed was how slow the Flash version of the site was, even on my ADSL 768 Kbps connection. Sure, I did click the Flash version, or as they call it the "extreme site", but who wouldn't? I mean we already know most users out there have Flash support (though, no one can prove those numbers for sure). So I clicked on the Flash version and expected to see something cool, what I found was something that was slow as molasses on my high speed connection. Someone must have thought everyone with Flash ran on T1s and DS3s... that is they best I could figure. Hint number one for the would-be e-commerce company, design for speed and quick results, not flair. This is an e-commerce site, not an art gallery.

More than Just a Box
After waiting forever for the menu system to load up I was able to navigate to the watch section I was looking for only to be presented with a bunch of model numbers that made no sense to me, the consumer. How am I suppose to know what DW9000 is? This happens all to often, the company decides to display a list of model numbers for the user to pick and choose through. The obvious problem here is that no one but those who work for the company or those who sell watches is going to ever know what each model number means. So, at any rate, I decided to click and see what each model number meant to me. What happened was I got a list of features, so I clicked on the next model only discover that the features seemed almost identical. After about three times of click back and forth from the various models I discovered the difference in features, as minor as it may have been. Hint number two for the soon-to-be e-commerce company, be up front, say what is exactly different witch each product you sell, save people like me time and energy.

Where is the Check-Out?
So I finally discovered what watch I was going to purchase and I was ready to buy. So where is the shop button? I looked around and I couldn't find it. What kind of sell was this? After a while of browsing I found out that I had to exit the catalog section and go all the way back to a button for the retail store. So I clicked. Not only did I have to backtrack to the main menu that was displayed when I first entered the site, but it actually loaded a totally different site in a new window and I had to go through the same steps to pick out which watch I wanted. Let me remember now, oh yes... g-shock... classic style... ok... now what model number was it again? Ok, I think it was DW9000. I was amazed that they had a price listed here, which was actually too much for my budget, but not back in the catalog where I actually made my purchasing decision. I decided to grin and bear it, I clicked on the watch and added it to my all-too-familiar shopping cart. After that I clicked on the Check-Out button and there it was, the ugliest and longest form that I had ever seen, and they expected me to fill out. Now, of course, they are going to need some information and some way to bill me, so it's expected that I would have to fill out a form, but they could have simplified it quite a bit. One idea that comes to mind is add a "my shipping address is the same as my billing address" checkbox instead of displaying two separate forms at the same time. The idea would be the user wouldn't even need to see the second form if they checked that box.

A Picture is Worth 1000 Words
Amazon Now I have picked on Casio quite a bit here, but I want to just use them as an example. There is several other e-commerce sites out there that are just as guilty with providing a poor e-commerce site as the people at Casio are. Another example that comes to mind is my experience with the almighty Amazon.Com this holiday season. Now, for the record, I must say the people in Seattle Washington deserve a good pat on the back for getting everything out on time with little to no delays this year, a huge improvement over last year. I typically don't have too many problems with Amazon's e-commerce system, but this year I ran into something a little out of the norm. I had a friend in Israel who wanted a Salvador Dali book for the holidays. So, naturally I went over to see what Amazon had for sale and before I knew it I was looking at a rather large list of books to choose from. The only real problem I ran into was the fact that the important thing about what book I choose was that I wanted it to have numerous full-page pictures. No where in Amazon's system did it indicate how many pictures were in each book or what pictures those were. If you're a Dali fan like I am, then you will know that most books only contain a select group of pictures and others have the same pictures in them that you would find in almost any Dali book. Now, I know she already has a Dali book, and I know what one it is... wouldn't it be great if Amazon listed how many pictures were in each book, what their average size was and even better yet, what pictures they were. There is nothing worse than buying a art book like this only to discover that the person you bought it for had a book that already included all the pictures that were in the book you just got them. Food for thought.

Trouble at the Check-Out
Yet again I struggled with the check-out system Amazon.Com has. This time it was because the item was a gift. Sure, there was a check box for "this item is a gift" that allowed me to choose wrapping paper and so forth (which I thought was brilliant, mind you). The problem came when I was "required" to enter a phone number for the place I was shipping it to. Aside from the fact that I did not have my friend's phone number Israel, I couldn't have dreamed of putting it in that field because I didn't want anyone calling her up and spoiling the whole surprise. So I put in my number, welcome to my personal hack number one. So through the process I went, no catches on the way, everything seemed to go pretty smooth actually. Then I ran into a small inconvenience, the shipping time. Amazon was asking me which method I would like to ship the item with. Well, naturally I would have like have seen her get it by Christmas but when it came down to determining the shipping method based upon shipping times, Amazon expected me to do the math. They displayed a formula that I could use to calculate out the maximum time it would take to get the package delivered. Talk about an inconvenience. It wouldn't take much to whip out some sever based solution that said, "based upon today's date, shipping your package with X method it would arrive as late as X day." Very simple, gets the formula out of the minds of the customers and gets them thinking about what the real best method of shipment is. None the less, the item was purchased and shipped. Now, if it arrives on time, that is another story.

It's not just me
Grinch Now it would be easy to pass this off as a few unfortunate experiences that I was, supposedly, in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's not, however. Others have experienced the same types of problems with every kind of site ranging from e-commerce sites to support sites including Michael H. Goldhaber who wrote an article entitled "Designed to Fail" for A-List-Apart last week expressing his concern. In it, he details his own personal experiences as well, this time with another high-tech company and their web site. As a colleague of mine once said about a famous high-tech company, "[company name] makes money despite themselves." The worst part about that is, you know, I believe the guy. Some of these companies have great engineers, sometimes even a world-class creative department, but when it boils down to making their e-commerce site they don't take advantage of these departments. Even if they outsource the design and hire one of the best design firms in the world, they end up crippling the design simply because they don't trust that agency's best judgement.

Show Trust in your Web Agency
It's not enough to hire the best design firm in the industry to design your web site or your next e-commerce system. Companies need to take the next step and realize that they hired a professional development firm not just because they can get the job done, but because they have the experience and know-how to get it done right. Too often do I see great ideas shot down just because some head-honcho executive wants things his way, and I quote, "I'll be damned if they are going to tell me what my web site should look like and how it functions." Ignorance is bliss on the executive rung of the corporate ladder. Overcoming that is perhaps one of the greatest lessons any company can learn from. I work for an integrated media company, as they like to call themselves, and I work along side of some of the most brilliant people in the world. If only those people could be given the chance to bend the rules and do what is right for the better of the web.


References
- ZDNet: The Ugly Side of Online Holiday Shopping
- CNN: Toysrus.com won't deliver toys to some shoppers by Christmas
- News.Com: Toys "R" Us falling short on Christmas deliveries
- ALA: Designed to Fail

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Nick Finck is a 13-year veteran of the web and considered a web craftsman by trade. His skills traverse web design, web development, user research, web analysis, information architecture, and web publishing. Nick founded his first web consultancy in 1994 in Portland, Oregon, and has since created web experiences for various Fortune 50 and 500 companies including Adobe, Boeing, Blue Cross / Blue Shield, Cisco, CitiGroup, FDIC, HP, IBM, Microsoft, PBS, Peet’s Coffee, and others. He currently resides in Seattle, Washington and is a co-founder of Blue Flavor, a web strategy company that focuses on people-centric solutions. More information about Nick can be found on his web site, NickFinck.com.

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