Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Reflections on an E-Commerce Paper

10 years ago in my MIS class I joined forces with several others on a collaborative paper. The topic? E-Commerce. What was that? I remember in those early days of the web (with Telnet and Polaris still our email clients) being mystified by electronic commerce. I didn't understand it...couldn't wrap my head around the idea. I didn't even grasp really that it meant being able to buy online in its most basic sense. I know I did an extraordinary amount of research - I'm not sure what sources I pulled from since there was nothing really in publication about this new technology yet - but I whipped together some mumbo jumbo and gave a presentation on the allusive topic. I think I got an A-.

Fast-forward to 2007. I'm holiday surfing online and much to my dismay these tiny downtown boutiques tout their web presence only to be met with my discerning judging eye. Me, the girl who raised an inquisitive eyebrow when reading about e-commerce in '97. I'm a HUGE supporter of the local scene but I cannot for the life of me comprehend how a small independently owned shop can possibly compete even in its own local realm without a favorable online site. By site I mean a clean, professional looking site, easy to navigate, sharp crisp photos of actual inventory updated daily, and your tried and true About Us, Contact Us, Products/Services. If you can't pull that off then don't even bother having a site. Front Page is inexcusable today. What infuriates me, the buyer, even more are those sites that advertise the ability to shop online. I'm greeted with little or no inventory, mediocre photos, barely there descriptions, a layout that screams unprofessional (and reflects badly on my perception of the brick and mortar shop) and shopping carts that never work. Finally, where is my payment going? Unless I see that little lock at the bottom right of my screen, forget about it. I'd prefer to email the artist and do payment via PayPal. Just like the look of the site, if you can't do e-commerce right in its basic sense, don't do it at all.

Here are some sites I visited today that made me wince. I'm focusing on West Chester merely because I'm heading there on Friday (with a few other sad sites thrown in to convey my point). I've been to all of these brick and mortar shops and they ROCK (sans the NH Baby Bungalow). What if I'd never been? Their scary web presence immediately writes them off as not worth my time exploring.

A cute vintage jewelry shop - What is this?
Handmade Bags - The name itself makes me think of Scarlett: Fiddle Dee Dee!
Handcrafted artisan jewelry and furniture - Wait, isn't it winter?
Maternity and Baby - The home page is deceiving I soon figured out.
Seeking a Baby Shower Gift - Uh...where's my cousin's registry???
Known for its MOMA like gift shop - I swear they actually sold design books.

Hiring a professional designer or developer can be expensive, but how many college students would die for the chance to build their portfolio pro bono or for pennies designing a boutique's site? How many freelancers are out there, posting ads to Craig's List daily for work like this? Having worked for a small business, time is scarce especially when it's just one or two people. Scouring Craig's List isn't the best use of their time. Or is it?

I say the following as one who started a small arts marketing agency, as one who worked at small boutiques, and as a discerning web savvy shopper: You either have a good site or you don't have one at all. End of story. If you don't have the skills or it isn't the best use of your time, you don't have a site or else surround yourself with people who know what they are doing and are willing to work with you and your budget.

Half assed anything doesn't cut it anywhere - not with the big boys like GAP and not at a small local independent level. Small, cozy, intimate shops and businesses with darling missions are the backbone of our economy but at the end of the day, it's still business. Small businesses outnumber the others in this country but if you think your customers will cut you a break because it's just the two of you, think again. There are plenty other small businesses to frequent who have a competitive edge over others, whether it's online or customer service and experience.

I look forward to my local shops for holiday gifts. I will still visit these shops in the flesh. But which online sites will I buy from this holiday season? I'll likely be at Etsy because honest to god, it's the do-it-yourselfers of my generation who know what they doing.

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