Taking Online Retail Beyond the Incremental

Opinion: Don't just improve the selling process; re-imagine it.

In last weeks column, I started to build a bridge between the things that are working in online retail today and the changes that Id like to see tomorrow. This week, Id like to finish the thought.

Last weeks column challenged online sellers to build the kind of site that they most fear. The site that rises above the pack, I said, is the one that offers potential customers ready access to current customers comments, brings its aftermarket ecosystem under the brands umbrella and makes it easy for buyers to read what independent sources have to say about the products or services offered.

My final point was that you cant hide from the truth: If you dont give buyers these potentially embarrassing looks at your dirty laundry, they wont just get along without that kind of information; theyll go elsewhere to find it—and perhaps they wont come back.

I want to go further this week and talk about the much more disruptive changes that I hope to see in online retail—not just for people who are shopping from home on their PCs, but in brick-and-mortar stores that need to make better use of the Net as part of the in-store experience.

I was trying to come up with good examples when I took a break from writing this column to have a conversation with Andrew Dent, founder and CTO of Seattle-based Hubspan.

Ill find another opportunity to talk about Hubspans core business of turning enterprise middleware functions into a software-as-a-service proposition. What I want to explore here is one of the examples that Dent offered of how to make the selling process a whole lot more intelligent.

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The basic process, Dent observed, of selling so-called white goods such as stoves and refrigerators is not a source of competitive differentiation between one manufacturer and another.

When several different makers of major appliances want to get into the same retail store, they benefit from having similar processes of verifying availability, arranging shipment and so on. That industry, Dent told me, has recognized this and has put together a consortium called Tradeplace that gives them a common Web service interface for these core functions.

As a result of that commonality, Dent went on, its now possible for a customer in a home improvement store to look at options for kitchen redesign and to drag and drop alternative choices—from any of several manufacturers—into place on an electronic floor plan, getting immediate feedback on when that choice could be available and at what cost.

Its not just that the information is available online instead of through a possibly outdated catalog or through a frustrating process of phone tag with a distributor; its that the process of requesting and receiving that information has been tied directly into the customers process of considering possible choices, streamlining what used to be a multistep process into one convenient and encouraging experience.

This is the crucial insight—that product vendors, and even products themselves, need to be smarter and more proactive in getting closer to the customer whose need is still taking shape.

Im not just talking about appliances—Im talking about things such as OnStar-equipped cars that upload diagnostic telemetry via satellite, so that car owners get an e-mail bulletin on needed maintenance service instead of needing to check an owners manual.

Im hoping that my next digital camera will check in with a remote server when I plug the camera in to my PC to download pictures—so that the server can tell me that theres new camera firmware available, or a new image-stabilizing lens in the range that photo metadata shows me using most of the time, rather than my not knowing either fact unless I read a bulletin on a photography Web site.

Were good today at helping customers find out about things that they know theyre looking to buy, but we need to help people find out about options that they dont even know exist.

Current selling sites do a good job of helping customers with good research skills, but those customers are short on time, and the rest of the customers need help as well. More intelligence in products, and also in retail environments, has to come next.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at peter_coffee@ziffdavis.com.

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