Net Retail Needs to Leap to the Next Level

Opinion: What sellers fear most is what they must dare to become.

Like the first attempts at a "horseless carriage," the "Internet shopping" that weve seen so far is only an incremental update of something we already knew and understood—not something fundamentally new.

You can easily imagine a wooden wagon that moves without a horse in front of it, but that wont make you think of the need for seat belts—let alone the opportunity to sell people a box that provides GPS navigation on highways.

Todays online shopping eliminates many nuisances and improves on the physical limitations of brick-and-mortar storefronts, just as the horseless carriage removed undesirable elements of horse-drawn transportation.

However, there are quantum jumps to be made, and marketplace gains await those who make them first.

This thought occurred to me when I received an e-mail newsletter from Lexar, a maker of memory cards for digital cameras.

Photographic film affects the objective quality and even the subjective character of the creative product, but the only thing you want from a piece of memory is that it be invisible to your process.

Kudos to Lexar for trying to overcome this problem, but Im not sure that a periodic newsletter on photographic techniques is going to capture market share. However, Lexars approach got me thinking about online selling success.

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Sites such as and BizRate have changed the way that I start my purchasing process, with their convenient tabulations of who sells what combined with accessible reports from others who have bought from any given supplier.

These sites replace the economics of who does more advertising and who has lower prices with the more nuanced economics of reputation.

Individual buyers now have the information they need to weigh price and availability against the risk of a poor experience. If you disappoint any buyer anywhere, the story can get to potential customers everywhere.

If you sell on the Net, the jump that you must make is to give your customers a forum, right there on your own retail site, where other prospective buyers can be assured of your reputation.

If you dont do this, theyll go elsewhere for that assurance—and be exposed to your competitors offerings during that outside research. If youre afraid to let your future customers see what your current customers have to say, you have to solve that problem. You cant make it go away just by making people look elsewhere for those candid comments.

Also of note in online selling is the so-called long tail effect, in which goods that sell in small volume can still be economically stocked and offered to buyers.

This merely begins with the fact that, for example, can offer me a wider range of titles—even multiple editions of a title—where a smaller neighborhood bookstore would have neither the space nor the capital to carry that large an inventory.

At least as important is the ease with which gives me access to any number of used-book dealers and a nearly transparent way to search among them for a book, compare offerings, purchase the title and then rate the experience. doesnt carry that used-book inventory, but it makes money from the fact that someone else does. Every supplier should emulate Amazon.coms example by integrating aftermarket suppliers, used-equipment dealers and other members of their ecosystem under their own brands umbrella.

If youre afraid to compete against your own aftermarket, you need to confront the reasons for that fear—not merely sweep them elsewhere.

The third leg of the online selling tripod is the product evaluation data thats available from many credible independent sites.

I cant imagine buying a camera without seeing whats said about it at; I wouldnt buy a car without a look at, or

Court opinion leaders, make their reviews accessible through your site and make sure they have access to top-quality information. Do all this, and your site will become the No. 1 starting point, rather than just one of many destinations, for the savvy shopper.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at

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