The Thing That Goes Bump In The Night

Can I rant for a moment?

E-commerce figures are up: A recent Forrester study projects that online retail revenue will top US$7.8 billion by the end of the year. Almost 9 million folks will have shopped online by year-end, and that number is expected to grow to 40 million by 2003. Lots and lots of purchasing but still less than one fifth of the estimated 53.5 million US users (Mediamark Research, Inc. estimate).

Why? Why are four out of every five web users not buying online?

With the mall parking lots resembling lifeboat queues on the Titanic, stores jammed with Furby-crazed parents, and a labor-strapped economy making good help as scarce as the aforementioned Furbys you’d think that people would be begging to use the ‘net to handle their holiday shopping.

Unfortunately, they aren’t. And why? Because they’re scared.

The biggest fear that most folks seem to have about buying on the ‘net is that their credit card number will be stolen. After being assailed by “insecure site” pop-up warnings, cookie warnings, and mealy-mouthed media “warnings” about online credit card fraud, most consumers seem to assume that sending their credit card across the ‘net is about as insecure as yelling it out in a crowded subway terminal. Baloney.

If you’re one of those scared people, let me offer you a little bit of insight — it’s a lot easier for me to tap your phone (two alligator clips and an old handset would work nicely) than it is for me to set up some sort of IP packet sniffer and snarf your internet transmissions. Not that I would actually ever do such a thing (I usually hire out my dirty work). But theoretically it’s possible.

Same goes for the insecurity of handing out credit card numbers to people you don’t know. How many times have you forked over your card to some pierced ray of sunshine behind a counter? How many times has your local waitron disappeared into the back room of a restaurant with your card, doing who knows what? And how many people have called those little ads in the back of the New Yorker to order yet another knick-knack with their credit card?

You get the point. Lots of times. But on the ‘net, suddenly, it’s different. It could be that while people think they can tell if someone is shady by the sound of their voice or appearance, the depersonalized nature of the web makes them nervous. It could be that people are nervous about the new technology.

But I don’t think so. I think that the reason most people are afraid to shop online is that much of the media has had a great time warning people of dangers that don’t exist. While cases of credit card fraud perpetrated by fraudulent companies against unwary consumers have been reported, as far as I’ve been able to find in my research, there’s yet to be a single case of credit card “interception” or misuse by a legitimate company. Your credit card is probably safer going on the web than it is over the phone.

As online marketers, all of us need to be concerned about public e-commerce misconceptions. The same Forrester study I cited at the beginning of this rant also projects that by 2003, 51 percent of computer and other information-based sales will be made online, 29 percent of convenience items (books, CDs, etc.) will be purchased online, and 17.5 percent of replenishment goods (read groceries) will be bought by web shoppers.

Those numbers are good, but they’re only going to get better when people begin to get comfortable typing in their credit card numbers.

I would like to suggest an industry-wide consortium dedicated to changing public perceptions of e-commerce. PSA-type ads (both on and off the web) could make the point that buying online is as safe (if not safer) than buying in the analog world.

A little PR could go a long way here, with stories and “fact kits” that would show just how safe, easy, and fun online shopping is. Getting a couple of nationally known police and fraud experts to tell the real story wouldn’t hurt, either.

For e-commerce to grow, we’re going to have to address this issue as an industry sooner rather than later. The potential is big, but right now it’s just one fifth of what it could be.

We need to get the word out, combat the misconceptions, and tell the truth. There’s a great story to be told. (And plenty of money to be made!)

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