Shhh… The E-Tailing Infant Comes of Age

Things used to be pretty turbulent while the e-tailing infant was growing up. And now it looks as if e-tailing has already weathered its teenage years and, showing signs of maturity, may be safely leaving home. It’s the silence surrounding e-tailing’s 2000 holiday season that tells me this is so.

The media tried to remind us how terrible last year’s holiday season was for e-tailers and how disastrous the season before last year’s had turned out to be. You recall the 1998 and 1999 holiday seasons, when major fulfillment problems annihilated many e-tailers and crippled many others. CEOs all over the place were up to their ears in trying to ensure on-time, accurate delivery. There were more lawsuits filed against e-tailers than in any other period of dot-com “history.”

Even the big boys — the Toys “R” Uses and Amazons of the world — had to resort to partnerships to remedy the fulfillment ills. Such strategic maneuvers not only led to healthy improvements in online service delivery but also ushered in the most silent of all holiday seasons.

Why? Because the din of bad publicity that e-tailing delinquency had elicited was suddenly gone.

In many ways, the latest holiday season’s tranquil passing paralleled that of the millennium bug. Remember the hype and expectation, the fear and preparation? All the precautions and presentiments were understandable or necessary, but, as things turned out, the forecasts and arrangements simply contributed to the proverbial tempest in a tea cup. Although e-tailing weathered the storm of failures during the 1998 and 1999 holiday seasons, expectations of e-tailing’s inevitable collapse and demise were as rife as the worldwide expectations of electronic collapse on the eve of 2000. But, in the end, instead of a big bang we heard barely a whimper.

Silence is golden. There wasn’t a lot to make a big noise about as far as online retailing was concerned. Perhaps because everyone was so focused on the fact that the e-tailing disaster just shouldn’t happen again, it didn’t. And a review of the last holiday season’s sales figures confirms that it didn’t.

eMarketer states that consumers spent an average of $215 online during the 1999 holiday season. Average spending increased to $280 in the 2000 holiday season. Not bad, considering all the bad press dot-coms had attracted during the previous year and the threat of fulfillment problems that prefaced consumers’ relationships with dot-com e-tailers up till this period.

Yes, the holiday silence was golden because it whispered of a successful, disaster-free season for e-tailers. Apparently, there wasn’t much for the media to report on: no major failures, no major lawsuits, no major consumer-complaint rushes.

The fact is, there should be no need to report on the absence of failure. Do you remember a holiday season prior to 1994 in which the media headlined articles like so: “This Year’s Holiday Season a Major Success for Retailers as They Managed to Deliver All Their Products on Time, Had Fewer Complaints, and Kept Their Promises”? I don’t.

Why?

Because such achievements are surely assumed to be everyday facts in retailing. They represent adherence to fundamental business principles that determine commercial survival.

Well, congratulations, e-tailers. You finally passed the test. It was the most elementary one, but also the most important. You’ve matured, so much so that you’re now included in the grownups’ press coverage. You don’t occupy columns of your own that discuss infrastructure problems, branding problems, keeping-your-promise problems, and other start-up problems. Articles on e-tailing can now discuss how the business looks as a mature industry: how the e-tailing machine is growing and being maintained rather than how it’s being built.

Having this in mind, my next question is, What will be the press’s focus on e-tailing during 2001, now that the media’s love-to-hate darling has succeeded? Time will tell. But I wouldn’t be surprised if you find the answer in articles covering traditional retailing.

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