Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Tired and Wired in E-Commerce

I recently conducted two online purchases online – booked a trip to Florida, and purchased flowers for my mother on her birthday. What different experiences they were.
When booking the trip, I was treated to a variety of services that would help me dodge the many bullets of business travel in 2008 – surprise fees, late arrivals, missed connections, even cramped seats. The flower purchase, conversely, left many mysteries unsolved - like what the bouquet would actually look like, or how long it would last. The experiences could not have been more different – and revealed stark contrasts in how far (or not) some categories have come in the world of e-commerce.
For many categories, e-commerce has come along way since the days when buying something on made you a pioneer. But others still seem to be stuck in 1996

. Here’s my round up of which categories offer the latest and greatest features to make shopping fun, or at least painless – and which ones still feel mired in 1990’s era features and service.


Footwear: They said that people would never buy shoes online – but lately, e-tailers have offered services and features that make it easier to click your way to a purchase than browse the racks at Nordstrom. Timberland (and others) let you design your own shoe. Zappos has a free return policy and has even been known to recommend a competitor’s product. And my favorite innovation comes from Nike+, a brilliant offline/online hybrid that lets geek-jocks track distances run , calories burned and other measurements online, via an embedded communication device on the shoe itself.

Fashion: today, even the highest end couture is now available to anyone no matter where they live, via sites like and; and destinations like make these items (or at least a few of them) available at deeply discounted prices; but new services like Ideeli have made discount shopping into a sport with text and e-mail alerts as soon as a coveted item goes on sale.

Travel: it seems like every time the airlines throw a problem at you, a web site pops up to help solve it. Buying the cheapest ticket humanly possible feels easy with discount alerts from all the major travel sites, and will even tell you whether fare will rise or fall for your particular route. Seat Guru will help you find the best seat, no matter what the aircraft or airline. And vast review sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp give you access to hundreds of reviews for any given hotel, airline or restaurant.


Flowers – This category is plagued by the very problem the “wired” group has solved. Flower recipients rarely get an arrangement that matches the one displayed on the site; there are virtually no personalization options (unless you count adding a margin building Vermont Teddy Bear to your flowers “personalization”); and selections feel dated, limited, and homogenous from site to site. No wonder this category has been suffering from long term decline.

Real estate – despite the advent of sites that feature listings by geography, home price estimates and foreclosure listings, this category still feels woefully lacking. This is especially surprising given the high level of involvement into this purchase. Zillow, whose home valuations are often laughably inaccurate, still feels more like a fun novelty than a true information resource. For Sale By Owner Listings are still listed separately from those controlled by real estate agents. And there is virtually no site that combines everything you need to make an informed decision: listings, foreclosures, value estimates, and neighborhood information. I’m sure there are hurdles, but this feels like a category where someone can still step in and offer a well differentiated product.

Job search - basically, sites like Monster, CareerBuilider, etc. produce too many results, and too many irrelevant results. Things are just as bad for recruiters, who are bombarded with resumes that have no relevance to the position. The result is an ocean of candidates submitting an ocean of resumes to people who don’t have the bandwidth to assess them.

How to go from tired to wired
So how does one wire up these “tired” categories? The answer lies in those cutting edge etailers – it just takes a little creativity and (as always) sensitivity to consumer needs. Below are a few suggestions that could help the categories above or similarly tired spaces:

Address pain points: how about digitally aging a bouquet to see what it will look like in a week – or even three? Or links to on job search sites to find out more about a company, warts and all? It’s not so hard to identify consumer pain points, one need only launch a fast survey or troll the blogs and message boards. Solve these mysteries and consumers will reward you.

Add some sizzle: feature one hour sales on limited stock items to create a sense of urgency, even competition. And spice up the merchandise: Martha Stewart and Vera Wang make flowers from my Great Aunt. But I know some young women that would appreciate a bouquet by Tom Ford or Muccia Prada. Heavy web shoppers tend to be younger and hipper – so should your product.

Introduce personalization: Consider giving users the ability to create their own floral arrangement. Or their own house, with an automatic e-mail that advises when one like it has become available. Personalization has already worked for categories (like travel and footwear) where the product was traditionally dictated by tastemakers. It’s certainly not a stretch to introduce it to the “tired” categories as well.

Get to know the consumer – sites like Netflix have continuous feedback loops that let users rate their choices, so suggestions get smarter and smarter. Not perfect by any means, but at least helpful. The same technology can be applied to jobs (or job candidates), flowers, or condos.

Basic message: give consumers the information they want, make the shopping experience as painless as possible, and occasionally intrigue and excite your users – the same stuff that works in the mall or the car dealership can win people over in the digital realm as well.

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