Hair-Trigger Internet Shifts Power to the Consumer

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I stood in three different lines at my local supermarket yesterday. The first line had one of those shoppers who refuses to bag his own stuff; and to add to the misery, he didn't start looking for his checkbook until after the order was rung up. I took two steps to the left and was in a new line.

That line was doing fine, but then an empty line opened up. Two more steps and, bang, I was out of there.

The moral of the story is that if you're a checker on commission, you've gotta hustle because customers can switch from one line to another in a heartbeat.

The Web is like that. With a click of the mouse, I can leave your site, or leave your store, never to return. Some stores report customers with full online shopping carts leave without paying and that as many as a third of all visitors hit the Back button before the home page even loads.

Marketers have created a hair-trigger world - a place where consumers have nearly infinite choice with minuscule switching costs. The end result is power. Power to the consumer as he or she deals with marketers.

I'm struck by how different this is than what we grew up with. A phone company that could do anything it wanted - the only way to switch was to move! Or a local bookstore that could have one cashier because the alternative was a 15-minute drive.

My favorite is the airlines, which, just to rub it in, make the following announcement at the end of a miserable flight: "We know that you have a choice in air travel…" They may think we have a choice, but if you've been to the airport in Buffalo, Kansas City or New Orleans, you'll quickly realize the last thing an airline wants is for you to have a choice.

What should a marketer do? How can we expect to grab profits for our shareholders if any customer can leave the site at any time and go to one of a thousand competitors?

The good news is that price isn't king. It's possible to charge more and still make sales. But you're going to have to make up for that price with a level of design, merchandising and service that keeps people coming back.

The bad news is that everything you do has to make it clear you are totally aware the consumer can leave in a heartbeat. One of the biggest mistakes marketers make online is treating customers as if they're in a store. They're not. It's much closer to putting a direct mail envelope in the prospect's hands - hoping they open it and respond.

And, if you get a response, please don't waste it. The hard part is getting someone to give you permission. Now that you've got it, leverage it. Make offers. Get personal. Focus on maintaining that relationship, making it less and less likely that the user will click away.

Now, if you can recommend a grocery store with baggers, I'm there.

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