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Copyright © 1999, MCB UP Limited
One of the problems of a busy schedule (or is it a lack of organisation... or just old age creeping up?) is that sometimes I forget what I've discussed with whom and when and at what level of detail. This is just to inform you (you are still with me, I hope) that I am returning to the subject of what is now generally referred to as e-commerce.
I am returning to it since, like many of you I suspect, I have actually been using it recently - as a consumer (or an e-shopper!). Again, like many people, I have my concerns about security when typing in my credit card number. I know that (assuming you are using a "safe site" with the appropriate security controls in place) the risks are much smaller than when handing your card over in many restaurants (why do they take so long to bring your card back - and how many times have they run it through their reader?) but somehow it seems more risky to have your card number (even in an encrypted form) flying through the ether (or along the phone wires) subject to any Tom, Dick or Hacker with thousands of pounds of equipment, a high level of skills and a criminal mind.
However, this piece is not about such issues. ("Well, get to the point then" I hear you cry.) It is more about the kinds of factor that shape a "satisfactory" online shopping experience. What is it about e-shopping that makes users want to do it again - with the same firm? Does the concept of customer satisfaction hold true online - and do the same issues shape it?
Anecdotally, by reading the letters and features in the computing press, it seems that it does. Online shoppers seem to want the same kinds of service - not surprisingly, they want the right products at the right time at the right price, and they expect to conduct their business with the minimum of hassle.
This has important implications for those firms just dipping their toes into the e-commerce pool. If you are the only online supplier of particular goods and services, you can get away with a poor Website, an inadequately sized-server, labyrinthine procedures, etc. But in an increasingly mature and sophisticated marketplace (which is what e-commerce will be in a year or so) competition will demand attractive, high capacity Websites which are easy to navigate and use.
Of course some of the advantages of e-commerce remain for suppliers. If "In space, no-one can hear you scream", then in cyberspace, no-one can tell how large you are. Young upstart companies can have a large, mature Web presence. They have an edge until the ''corporates'' throw larger sums of money - and their global brands - onto the Web.
The pioneering spirit may just about be what is needed in today's market. Tomorrow Web traders will need to match the large investments of the corporate, global organisations - or they will need to pay close and particular attention to their quality of service.
From my point of view - as a consumer - I stand to gain. Those who want my mouse to direct my money their way will have to persuade me they are worth doing business with. I don't care if they're in Birmingham or Bhutan (assuming the Bhutan postal service - or more likely DHL or Federal Express - can get the goods to me fairly promptly) but I do want "service"!