In the wake of the dot-com washout, a lot people nearly wrote off cyberspace as a retailing wasteland. But last week, Amazon reported that it had finally turned a profit, something most of us thought we'd never see, and preliminary figures show a sharp upturn in online sales despite the mild recession. Some other interesting post-Christmas tidbits are popping up, too: for the first time, more women than men are buying things online, a landmark barometer of a bright digital retailing future. Beyond that, in case you haven't noticed, online retailers are getting a lot smarter. The arrogant, customer-abusive tech world could learn a lot from these people, who offer steep discounts, stand behind their products, and actually offer real and free customer support.
The final Christmas shopping figures for 2001 are not in, but some industry analysts believe the new savvy and sensitivity of online retailers might have rescued the U.S. Christmas shopping season in the wake of September 11, when a lot of people either stayed home or tightened their belts. "I can't be quoted on this until the figures are finished," a friend and research analyst e-mailed me, "but I believe online shopping really saved retailing last year. The sites and service are getting so much better, and consumer confidence in them -- especially among women -- is skyrocketing. Online retailing is not only on the rise, it's really getting to be fun and easier. More importantly, they grasp customer service, something almost no software or hardware company yet does."
If that's so, and it definitely matches my personal shopping experiences, it's huge news for the Net. Consumers, chronically abused by the software and hardware industries, were initially anxious about buying things online. They worried about hackers, crackers and security; they faced poor customer service and complex downloading and other problems. But those problems -- unlike similar headaches in the larger computer industry -- are being addressed.
Retailers competing online this holiday season were a lot shrewder, says a story on About.com about the online retailing industry.
About.com cited a survey of 63 retailers who found a successful holiday season marked by a surprisingly effective combination of widespread promotions and discounting. Most consumers hate spam, but it doesn't bother them so much if it's about things they want, and if they're getting something for the attention. Both multichannel and Web-based retailers seemed to have learned a lot from past marketing missteps. The Shop.org/Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found that more advanced retailers, after carefully studying the economics of each online and offline promotion, are finding ways to offer the minimum discounts necessary for increasing sales volume and ways to deliver targeted promotions to the more than 100 million consumers estimated to have used the Net over the holiday season.
Besides that, sites have radically improved their graphics and visual representations of products. As fears about theft and security have subsided, companies have radically upgraded their customer service. This is in striking contrast to tech industries which sell products that are confusing and difficult to use, and either makes themselves unavailable to confused or outraged customers or charge them extortionate fees for "priority service," which is really just the service they would be entitled to for free in any other business.
If you want to see smart web businesses, I'd cite two in particular -- L.L. Bean and Pet Food Direct. L.L. Bean's site architecture is brilliant -- well organized, easy to navigate. It shows clear pictures of all of its products and allows easy customer access to account information, while still providing security. More interestingly, the site offers customers several ways to get instant help -- phone, instant messaging, nearly instant e-mail response. If you're encountering problems, you can simply e-mail or call and a human will respond promptly. This support is crucial to building consumer confidence. A shopper is much more likely to risk buying something online if they know they can get help with any problems. Tech shoppers are among the most distrustful on the planet after years of confusing products and poor service.
Pet Food Direct also offers a different kind of targeted retailing, e-mailing customers weekly about specials, sales and promotions on the products they have already demonstrated they want and use regularly. This isn't quite like spamming, since it's stuff the buyer needs. And the sharp discounts have a way of offsetting any irritation. The site isn't trying to be funny or cute. Rather than promoting a silly sock puppet, it offers heavily discounted pet food and reminds pet owners when they are apt to need it. It also offers sophisticated graphic renderings of products and instant customer service both online and by telephone. The purchase takes seconds. The discounts are heavy enough to attract shoppers attention, but apparently not so heavy to erode profits. One reason is that the site, like L.L. Bean, gives the consumer a variety of shipping choices, from regular mail to next day air. And the customer pays for shipping, choosing exactly how much of a discount he or she wants. In both cases, the sites don't spam -- they target people who have bought and need their products.
Dozens of other sites have similarly polished their presentation, honed their sense of marketing and discounting and, most importantly, invested in tech support and customer service. Shoppers feel secure not only through repeated use, but through the sense that somebody will speak to them if problems arise.
This is something that, alas, computer and software companies still haven't learned.