In a normal time, in a normal place, with summer nearly ending, e-tailers would be bracing themselves for the annual nail-biting and teeth-grinding weeks that precede the holiday gift-buying season.
Will holiday 2001 surpass last year’s sales figures? Will struggling e-tailers be able to buy some time and find salvation in a rush of online holiday sales? Which companies will emerge as industry leaders? Will there be any surprises?
It’s hard to find anyone who cares about those questions now.
This column was written to examine the issue of the holidays and e-commerce. In doing so, there is no desire to make this topic seem remotely in the same galaxy of importance as the tragedies of September 11th.
This is an attempt to discuss what we would have been discussing, to discuss problems of some significance, even if that significance has been surpassed in unthinkable fashion.
E-tailers have annually counted on the holidays to be their most profitable season. That the word “holiday” itself is now charged with a whole new meaning, given the horror that so many families are now facing, is something e-tailers will now have to face.
Way Back When
A week ago (an eternity ago), in a high-profile appearance designed to keep the Internet’s leading e-tailer visible, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos stood at the opening of the Nasdaq Marketsite, and proclaimed holiday 2001 “promising.”
At the opening, Bezos said: “There are a bunch of great new products coming out. There are a lot of great video games and other exciting products around the corner.”
Unlike smaller, struggling online merchants, Amazon is likely to continue its uphill climb to profitability, whether the holiday season delivers or not. Further, Amazon emerged during the 2000 holidays as the most visited e-commerce site of the season, according to Nielsen//NetRatings.
Out With The Old
But what of online shoe retailers, hardware merchants, gardening suppliers, PC sellers and hundreds of other, smaller e-tailers? How will they fare?
With the country in turmoil, with the national unemployment rate already higher than it has been in quite a long time, with leading economic indicators fluctuating between mediocre and dismal, retailers both on the Web and off are bracing themselves for a challenging holiday shopping season.
A recent poll from ABCNews.com found that 37 percent of Americans have made a purchase over the Internet, a 10-point increase when compared to a year earlier. However, the current state of the economy and the nation might have a greater effect on this year’s online holiday sales than the steady increase in Web shoppers.
Times like this should cause e-tailers to step back and take a hard look at what works, not just at the end of the year, but throughout the year. To not wait for Santa to come to the rescue, because you never know what might divert Santa from his course.
As a rule, Web shoppers appreciate the familiar. If a Web site has a name on it that rings a bell from another channel — say, the local mall — all the better. If kitchen appliances on the home page bear a brand name with decades of Americana behind it, score one for the home page.
Likewise, if an e-tailer can still muster the capital to mount an aggressive pre-holiday advertising campaign on multiple channels — including print, radio, TV and the Web — chances are the unique visitor count may climb mightily.
And one of the primary lessons of e-commerce to date is that offering product photos and clearly written product information, as well as easy navigation and purchasing tools, is the way to convert those visitors into shoppers.
If an online e-tailer has a powerful sibling in the brick-and-mortar world — read: The Gap, JC Penney, Macy’s, etc. — then in-store Web promotions and the strategic placement of Internet shopping kiosks will go far in integrating channels and encouraging sales.
But not every e-tailer can claim a big brother out there in the “real world.” What then?
It appears the best and brightest will align themselves with the most powerful on the Web.Think Drugstore.com and Amazon. Think Travelocity and America Online.
In the end, few e-tailers will succeed by going it alone. The winners of the e-commerce race, those who prosper long past holiday 2001, are likely to be the e-tailers that have not only the most in-demand products, but also the advantage of multiple sales channels and key alliances. Successful e-tailing is becoming a collaborative endeavor.
Return to Basics
So what about those nagging questions, the same questions we ask ourselves every year about this time? Who will win the online holiday sales race? Who will lead? Will the little guys get to the finish line?
At some point, we might need to ask something different. We might need to ask what the best strategy is to maximize increased traffic and ensure longevity well past the holidays.
Business-to-consumer e-commerce is not about a few weeks of shopping at the end of the year. Instead, e-tailers will need to focus more comprehensively on the big picture.
As soon as they are ready.
Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.