Drawing the E-Commerce Battle Lines

Opinion: When AOL recently jumped back into the shopping-portal biz, it reminded Evan Schuman of why children shouldn't play with e-commerce.

When America Online recently announced its yawn-oriented shopping portal ("Gee," asked executives from Microsoft and Yahoo simultaneously, "why didnt we think of that? Oh yeah. We did."), it renewed the perennial offline/online e-commerce debate.

Since shortly after the Web came into being and browsers became graphical, the Web was without form, and void and darkness were upon the face of the browser. And Andreessen said, "Let there be commerce." And Barksdale saw the commerce and that it was good. And Barksdale divided the online from the offline.

Biblical paraphrases aside, the age-old debate with e-commerce has been how retailers should make their online and offline sides play nicely together. In a perfect world, a retailer would do extensive customer research, identify the exact kinds of sales and services that make the most sense for online and those that would work best for offline, and act accordingly.

Division executives would then be compensated on overall growth and would therefore gleefully send sales to another group if thats in the companys best interest. Alas, we dont live in that perfect world.

This leaves us in a world of Web "me-too"s, brick-and-mortars that seem to fight with their online units more than cooperating with them and just a handful of companies that are truly trying to differentiate themselves.

I know it sounds self-serving coming from an eWEEK.com columnist, but the best answer to much of this is more sophisticated use of technology. Lands End, for example, has for years made an art out of online custom clothing. Using an extensive database and a onetime questionnaire, it provides an accurate, virtual fitting room.

/zimages/4/28571.gifTo read about Microsofts efforts to lure retailers to its operating system, click here.

Last week, a group of ink-stained daily newspaper publishers (Gannett, Knight Ridder and the Tribune Co.) tried to extend their display advertising sections onto the Web. Thus far, thats a pretty obvious move, but what ShopLocal.com did was create a wonderful amalgam of offline and online.

Instead of the AOL model of using a portal to find other online stores and pay shipping, ShopLocal.com uses the search and customization powers of the Web to help people find the items they want at brick-and-mortars and at brick-and-mortars that have those items on sale.

/zimages/4/28571.gifRead more here about how ShopLocal.com works.

Future revs are supposed to be able to add current inventory information as well. Imagine a holiday-shopping effort where the site takes your full list and identifies any local merchants (you set the distance for your definition of "local") that it have it on sale and in stock. You might even then be able to call and have them put it behind the counter for a few hours while you drive over.

I give that site gold stars because it is using technology not to create a brick-and-mortar or an online merchant, but to leverage the strength of one and to effortlessly marry it to the strength of the other. And as an added bonus, the customer fares better than he or she would have otherwise. ("Oh, yeah. Customers," mumbled the Costco exec. "Almost plumb forgot about them.")

Next Page: Burlington Coat Factorys better way.