E-Tail Is Just Another Store

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Was it only two years ago that the death of traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers was proclaimed from every rooftop -- or at least every financial analyst's desk?


Was it only fall 1999 that the pre-launch publicity for Boo.com resounded across global airwaves and e-waves?


Was it only a year ago that e-commerce experts predicted that online retailers would give traditional retailers a run for their money in the 1999 holiday season sweepstakes?


It is amazing just how quickly all the excitement and hype over the predicted effect of e-tailing has fizzled and reality has set in.


Reality being that shopping online is just another way of shopping - not the only way to shop.


Reality being that consumers' expectations when shopping online are no different from their expectations when shopping anywhere - retail store, catalog or television.


Reality being that consumers will integrate online shopping into their already broad range of shopping options just as they have done with every new shopping format in the past decade.


It is not about "out with the old, in with the new." It is about just another way to do it.


In the past decade, consumers have become increasingly confident about where and how they shop. Whenever a new type of shopping format has been introduced - and there have been many in the past decade - consumers readily added it to their portfolios of shopping options.


It began in the recession of the late 1980s and early '90s, when consumers of all ages and income levels went hunting for a deal. They willingly, eagerly shopped everywhere from discounters such as Wal-Mart to department stores such as Dillard's looking for the best bargains.


When television shopping was hailed as the new direct-to-consumer phenomenon, consumers were willing to give it a try.


When warehouse clubs such as Sam's and Costco, home improvement retailers such as Home Depot and outlet malls expanded across the country, consumers packed into their sport utility vehicles and went to stock up.


"If you build it, they will come" became the shopping mantra of the 1990s.


So it is little surprise that consumers have responded in the same way to online shopping.


In a very short time, U.S. consumers have recognized that online shopping is just another option: When going into a store or picking up the phone is not convenient, they can easily shop online from the comfort of their offices or homes.


And there's the rub. In that context, online shopping must satisfy consumers the same way traditional shopping venues do.


Regardless of where consumers shop today, they expect convenience, as well as to find what they want easily and to get in and out fast. They expect a consistent selection of quality merchandise and for that merchandise to be in stock every time they shop. They would love great service but do not expect it. However, they do expect pleasant (not necessarily glamorous) surroundings. And they demand to get what they paid for - good value.


Now you understand why so many e-tailers have failed. Toys "R" Us online shoppers were faced with outrageous shipping problems during the 1999 holiday season. They went elsewhere.


Boo.com dazzled the eye but was impossible to navigate efficiently, even with the speediest modem. The rest is history.


Walmart.com was so unlike the efficient, great-value Wal-Mart stores that consumers were confused and frustrated. The company has now redesigned the site for the third time.


In the end, online shopping will become - for many, it is already - just another way to shop, a place a consumer already trusts. As such, it must satisfy all the usual expectations consumers bring with them wherever they shop.


The key for the next generation of e-tailers is to remember that at its heart, the Internet is a store - but with a different delivery system.


• Wendy Liebmann is founder and president of WSL Strategic Retail, New York. Reach her at liebmann@wslstrategicretail.com.
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