eBricks And iMortar

Recently, NFO Interactive conducted an online retailing study to examine the buying habits and attitudes of online consumers. The survey fingered the usual suspects of privacy, security, and reliability as key qualities of a successful online retail site.

Call Mike Wallace.

Yet what made this survey noteworthy – or at least worthy of an article – were some of the comments made by the survey takers themselves. Tim Washer, NFO Interactive’s Director of Research & Consulting, suggested that online retailers need to model themselves after their offline counterparts.

“Retailers should consider implementing technologies that provide surrogates for the ‘in-store’ level of customer service,” said Mr. Washer. “The most successful online retailers will closely simulate the bricks-and-mortar shopping experience by approximating the offline experience, online.”

Without question, privacy, security, and reliability are e-commerce virtues for anyone setting up shop online. But “surrogates” and “approximating the offline experience”? Didn’t we learn anything from the online mall boondoggle of a few years back?

E-tailers In Brick-and-Mortar Clothing

Sure, the online world can be a scary, foreign place for a doting tourist waving a credit card. To get him to loosen up his kung fu credit card grip, we attempt to pacify him with analogues from a friendlier, more familiar offline world – such as shopping cart metaphors and instructions for proceeding to checkout.

But online malls? And what about 3-D models where consumers are expected to take virtual reality joyrides through aisles of cheese puffs and hair care products?

We can only begin to imagine how far e-tailers will take reality retailing. Surveillance cameras in virtual fitting rooms? Cheesy Muzak. versions of your favorite 80’s hits as you peruse the clearance rack (which all turns out to be size 74 and up)? Pop-up windows featuring salespeople that nag you throughout the site, saying “Can I help you?” even after you click “Get lost”?

There’s a danger in our eagerness to make everything online just as it is offline. To date, all attempts to make the web look like television have only reminded us of just how much it is a poor substitute for television. (Intel’s recent abandonment of Intercast implicitly concedes that the TV of the future will look less like a PC and more like, well, a TV.)

Just as the web is not television, e-commerce is not in-store shopping. Trying vainly to position it that way will only remind consumers of just how poorly it compares to the in-store experience. No one watches the 11 o’clock news because of how much it resembles the morning paper, and no one purchases from mail-order catalogs because it’s just like being at the mall.

Not Everyone Loves “The Mall”

As business-to-consumer e-commerce continues to grow, either one of two things will happen.

Online retailing could cannibalize traditional outlets and set the standard for the future of retailing. In which case, online stores modeled after their offline counterparts will resemble an original purpose that’s no longer relevant – akin to the superfluous plastic plugs that come in the “cigarette lighters” of many new cars.

Alternatively, online retailing could challenge but not replace in-store shopping. Much like mail- and telephone-order shopping, e-tailing could develop into a niche shopping experience valued not for how closely it resembles in-store shopping, but for how it differs from that experience.

Although our money may be on the latter of the two, it’s not too early to emphasize how online retailing is different, and better, for your customers. This is true even if it means showing off your cheese puffs in only two dimensions.

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