November 26, 2006

What Is Wrong With E-Commerce?

We are more than a decade into the e-commerce experiment, and it feels to me like we've completely stagnated. Something is amiss with e-commerce.

Take a look at several leading websites:

Within each category, I see similar presentation styles, similar merchandise, similar prices, similar promotions.

There is a human element of e-commerce that, to me, is simply missing. Retail merchandising is all about being human. People exhibit artistry and creativity in presenting and selling merchandise in a retail setting. People serve customers, solve problems, help select merchandise, help make the consumer feel good about her purchase. Humans fail, and we love to talk about all of the failures. But humans succeed far more often than not.

The catalog channel, to a lesser extent, has elements of human interaction. The catalog can be merchandised in a way that communicates a story to the customer. Imagery and copywriting communicates a story that engages the customer. The customer picks up the phone, and calls a person working in a call center. The human interaction between the person working in a call center is an important part of the historical success of cataloging.

I feel like the online channel is missing warmth, missing a certain element of humanity. All of the websites mentioned earlier do a nice job of presenting merchandise on their homepage. But in all cases, you are dealing with a machine. A machine (one usually programmed by humans) determines what recommendations it has for you. Navigation of the website is largely done in a drill-down manner, one built in the style of databases developed by information technology experts. You can use search and various hyperlinks to jump around a website. But for the most part, you are drilling down, then backing up to a landing page, then drilling down again.

This is not the human method of shopping used by customers in stores, or the random thumbing through pages of a catalog. It isn't natural. This drill-down and back-up style of navigation causes the merchant to not be able to tell a compelling story. Catalogers use copy to create emotion and inspire purchasing. The online merchant cannot do this, because the online merchant simply cannot know where every customer is going to navigate at any given time.

In the past two or three years, the pace of e-commerce innovation has slowed. E-Commerce continues to grow, in large part because customers are migrating from the catalog channel to the online channel, and because of the increase in access to broadband internet access. Once the transition from catalog to online wraps-up, and once the majority of consumers have broadband access, something will need to change in the online shopping experience.

I don't believe our industry's zealous focus on multichannel integration is the answer. Somehow, we marketers need to humanize the online experience. We need to move away from the "information technology" based design of websites, and somehow allow our customers to have meaningful experiences when visiting our sites. Until this happens, we simply compete on the basis of lowest price and best promotional tactics.