First Degree Mortar

Sometimes you can get so caught up with revolution that you forget about the forces of evolution.

For example, not long after the arrival of the web browser, many online marketing clairvoyants expected us to be navigating three-dimensional, virtual worlds for our online shopping needs by now. We’re still waiting for our virtual reality helmets, yet no one bothered to mention online auctions and stock trading.

A similar phenomenon is happening just a few years after the advent of the online storefront. Physical stores were once considered the relics of retail dinosaurs — doomed to extinction. The phrase “bricks and mortar” suggested a business that was ready for mounting under glass at a natural history museum.

However, most of you are probably all too familiar with the Internet’s jargon du jour, clicks and mortar. Unlike the many other previous Internet buzzwords, catch phrases, and fads, the principles behind “clicks and mortar” should last long after the phrase wears out its welcome.

Livin’ La Vida Loca

With the media focusing exclusively on pure Internet plays, virtual stores, and online surrogate experiences, it’s easy to forget that the Internet is largely a business means — and not an end in itself. Yet there’s a danger in allowing enthusiasm for e-commerce’s promise to separate you from reality. According to a recent study of e-business projects by the Gartner Group, a leading cause of failure is viewing these projects as an end in themselves.

Consequently, while many of us are obsessing over how e-commerce might directly change our lives (revolution, Internet-only retailers), few are paying attention to e-commerce’s indirect, potentially greater effects (evolution, clicks and mortar hybrids).

It’s as if we’ve just invented the automobile, and instead of thinking about how people will live with their cars, thousands of start-up companies are thinking of how people will live in their cars. So instead of drive-in restaurants, we first think dashboard microwave ovens. Instead of parking lots, we first think mobile home parks. Instead of motels off the Interstate, we first think queen-sized bucket seats.

It’s not just e-commerce, either. Many of the top portal sites have launched strategic broadband efforts that have confused the means with the ends. Developed as destination sites for high-bandwidth media, the portal companies seem to be telling us that format matters more than content.

Some of us looking for current hurricane information might catch ourselves saying, “Gee — what I wouldn’t do for some random, fat video clips of Ricky Martin right now.” But more likely, we’d like to find the weather forecast regardless of how it’s presented.

Sticky? Theater Floors Are Sticky

The web site-as-destination concept leads us to another point. Today we expect online consumers to shop, pay bills, get an education, socialize, and hang out on the street corners of our sticky web sites. Our web sites are less a means than an ends. Instead of supplementing our customers’ lives and experiences, we’re counting on our sites to replace them.

This is a recipe for potential disaster. To the great disappointment of many aspiring web sites, few, if any sites have the destination potential of a shopping mall or a television network.

It doesn’t matter if you’re out to become the Internet’s largest retailer of jewelry by the pound. Chances are that you are not a television network, and you don’t have the expertise nor the draw to run a 24-hour TV network on the Internet. As much as your board of directors might like to think otherwise, no one is going to mistake your talent and wit for the cast of Friends.

Welcome To The 24-Hour Gong Show Channel

E-commerce sites aren’t so much revolutionary vehicles for human experience as they are evolutionary sales channels. Hence why physical stores matter in the e-commerce equation.

Physical stores have accumulated a vast wealth of knowledge and experience at building successful businesses reaching in-store customers. That much hasn’t changed overnight, and it’s arguable that in-store shoppers will continue to command the lion’s share of business-to-consumer commerce revenues for some time. For these businesses, e-commerce represents an opportunity to attract and retain customers better served through alternate sales channels — providing an additional revenue stream.

Ensuring that your business has a strong online presence is therefore very important. But unless you offer quality, in-demand products at competitive prices with a sufficient level of customer support, a great e-commerce site won’t offer any reason for consumers to choose you over your offline competitors.

This is not an indictment of all pure Internet play e-commerce sites. There’s certain to be a few exclusively online success stories. Yet the majority of Internet successes will undoubtedly come from established retailers who embrace the Internet as something that supplements their existing customer interaction — not as something that replaces it.

Sometimes you just have to take the virtual reality helmets off for a while and look around.

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