There is much ebullience about booming online sales. In an interview on CNBC a couple of days ago, the CEO of Circuit City attributed the positive company results "in large part due to on-line sales". Specifically, he said the ability to shop online and then pick up the item in the nearest store twenty minutes later was a unique feature that customers love. It is indeed a nice feature, and others are offering it too (see in store pickup stories in patrickWeb).
In spite of the rosy online sales stories, we still have a very long way to go. I actually feel we have most of the way to go — we have only seen five percent of what we are going to see — in both our business and personal lives. Although growing at double digit rates, the e-commerce sales in the third quarter accounted for just 2.3 percent of total sales. It will be very interesting to see what the final numbers show for all of 2005. (See Census Bureau for data on this). Whatever the numbers may show, the real point is that businesses and their websites have a long way to go to become on demand at meeting our rapidly rising expectations.
While it is truly amazing what many websites have achieved, we continue to see some things that make us scratch our heads. Any of us could cite personal cases. Here are a few examples I experienced in just the last couple of weeks. A major financial services company had the following at the top of a financial statement — "ONLINE STATEMENT this is not a legal statement". Huh? A hotel (for of a global chain) in Philadelphia told me they can’t access any of my account information and that their headquarters can not access any hotel information. On purpose, they said. I emailed their customer service about it and here is what they said — "I apologize that the hotel was unable to locate your account information, and I apologize that our online sales office doesn’t have access to your personal billing information at hotels. Some of our hotels, per our members request, require written authorization, with your signature, in order to protect your privacy. As such, we are unable to view records of your stays at hotels or add missing stays without a copy of your hotel receipts".
Still not convinced we are only five percent of the way there? One of the world’s largest parcel delivery company’s website said "Pickup is not available in your area". I had entered a nine-digit zip code. The website wanted five digits. Rather than saying I had made an error or just looking at the first five, they processed the zip code and concluded they didn’t deliver there. I could not convince customer service that this was a website problem. They said it was my fault for entering it wrong. A giant healthcare website has a list of their providers "online". After calling the doctor’s office for an appointment, they said "He hasn’t worked at the practice for two years".
Meanwhile the advertisers are getting desperate to get our attention. Pop-up boxes and flash movies that we have to watch or click to get to what we want. "Contact Us" forms require a mini-survey and pre-categorization of our question before we can ask it, and then a message is sent to them with no copy to us.
We have a long way to go — the good news is that it is happening — steady progress is being made. Already companies are being judged by their websites and the final numbers for 2005 will encourage even more competition to get us moving toward ten percent!