E-Commerce’s Tween Years

By Evan Schuman  |  Posted 05-08-2005

E-Commerce’s Tween Years

Little E-Commerce is turning 11 years old this year and, like its human counterparts, this is an awkward part of its corporate adolescence.

It's no longer the cute little tyke from ’95 and ’96, with those adorable Web sites selling dog food from around the world, which its corporate parents dutifully placed on their boardroom freezer door.

But it’s also not yet like the mature, stable economic tools, like its big brother IP and Grandpa Catalogue and Grandma Bricken Mortar. Just like its toddler stage in the mid-90s, it’s once again time for experimentation. Most experiments will be the most important thing in the world…for about a week, and will then be as quickly forgotten as the dirty dinner dishes.

Although Daddy Berners-Lee technically created the WWW in 1989—with the first working system deployed in 1990—it wasn’t until 1993 when Uncle Andreesen made Web browsers graphical that consumers and most business executives even discovered the Internet, let alone the very young Web.

And in 1994, the year we declare little EC was born, is when Mosaic left the NCSA university environment and became a true business tool.

Today, our 11-year-old Mean Tween Sellin’ Machine is trying to find itself.

For example, some of the guys behind MySimon.com are now running become.com, and they have decided that the Web needs a search engine that only searches reviews.

At one level, this concept is an intriguing one in the sense that people often want to find Web content that is about a certain topic, not merely mentioning the name of the topic. By all rights, this idea should be owned by About.com, but they have a fairly cool Web site already.

Journalistically, though, Become.com’s site doesn’t deliver on the true potential of the idea. When consumers say that they want to find reviews and in-depth comparative stories on a given topic, they actually mean they want to find credible, authoritative content on that topic. That’s been the secret behind Consumer Reports for years.

Out there on the Web, there are tons of insightful and credible reviews on almost any topic imaginable. Regrettably, there are an even greater number of bogus “reviews” out there, either advertising copy meant to fool people into thinking it’s an independent review … or true reviews done by reviewers who are not making fair or legitimate comparisons.

I risk being swamped with nasty e-mail for saying this, but I wouldn’t trust a review by a true Mac bigot if the review was comparing a Mac and a Windows machine. But I would gleefully pay attention to that same reviewer if he/she was comparing two new Macs.

Alas, the typical consumer has no idea who the reviewer is, who the publication is nor who should be believed. A Web site of consumer product reviews would be a fabulous idea if there were an editorial component that asked hard questions and stood behind the legitimacy of reviews it offered on its pages.

There’s no need to review every product out there, but simply letting software select reviews to link to is an idea that needs to be tweaked.

Next Page: Universal shopping carts

TKTK

Become.com CEO/Co-Founder Michael Yang said his team launched the site because of a consumer need for review information today. No argument there. But he added that the only sites that are being excluded are spam sites. A site that merely has bogus reviews will get in, he said.

“We don’t manually exclude sites,” Yang said. “Ultimately, it’s up to the consumers to decide.” He added that the site’s software will rank more “authoritative” sites higher, but it seemed that their software would equate popular with authoritative. That’s a dangerous concept as long as crafty corporate marketers are allowed to roam Wall Street. Remember viral marketing and the “consumers” loudly praising particular brands of beer at local taverns?

Another good recent example of the latest flavor of e-commerce is a site called SortPrice.com.

This was another excellent idea that isn’t quite being taken far enough to deliver on its potential. The concept: Take the shopping cart idea that has become so synonymous with e-commerce, but make it universal. What if that cart could hold—and compare—products from literally thousands of vendors?

But SortPrice places a significant limit on what they call their “Shop, Drag & Drop” technique. Their limitation reminds one of the nightclub impressionist who tells an audience member, “I can impersonate anyone in the world. Anybody! (pause) Just as long as their name is on this index card.”

SortPrice’s service is limited to vendors and products that are on their Web site. In many respects, it’s a twist on one of the very first e-commerce ventures: the electronic shopping mall.

With large sites such as Amazon.com already showcasing third-party distributors and products of almost every single kind, the SortPrice approach is not that exciting.

Still, they are offering retailers free space on their site and several large ones—including Target.com, Buy.com, Office Depot and HSN—have joined. But the concept of a standards-compliant desktop app that could make an interactive price- and feature-comparing shopping cart of products taken from any Web site is still exciting. I’m sure someone out there has built it. Somewhere.

Another semi-new twist of Web commerce harkens back to the currently rarely used full name of the WWW. E-commerce players have discovered that the theory of globalization on the Web isn’t any more real than it is on land.

The language and cultural differences still force companies to create local sites for every market. But a company called NetCert Inc. has figured out a way to make globalized money from the Web.

NetCert’s prospects are retailers who are looking to sell products to Chinese consumers but who are hesitant to invest the huge amount of money needed to set up shop in China.

So NetCert is taking its China Web site and opening it to American retailers. It provides mid-sized retailers a relatively cost-efficient means to enter the China market, with minimal costs, NetCert officials argue.

Next Page: Can we survive the wait while E-Commerce grows up?

TKTK

The Chinese government still keeps a tight reign on business operations and especially on financial tools, such as credit cards.

“It is foreseeable that as China's national limitations on participating in financial institutions gradually relaxed, the NetCert system can become a new breed of online credit cards,” said a NetCert statement.

The company says that it has more than 20,000 consumer accounts in China, more than 3,000 merchants and 20,000 online shops ready to open. Hopefully, they’ll bring in a lot more consumers, or else they’ll have one online shop for every prospective customer. Talk about one-to-one marketing.

Like any adolescent, the near-term goal is not necessarily that they exercise terrific judgment or only spend their time in the most shrewd of ventures. Now is the time for safe experiment while they figure out what they want to be when they grow up.

But like its human counterpart, E-Commerce is going to reach adulthood much more quickly than anyone thinks. If we grin and bear these growing pains just a bit longer, E-Commerce will eventually grow up. Whether we can survive the wait is another question.

Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesn't plan to stop any time soon. He can be reached at Evan_Schuman@ziffdavis.com.

To read earlier retail technology opinion columns from Evan Schuman, please click here.

Check out eWEEK.com's for the latest news, views and analysis on technology's impact on retail.