Online Commerce Slow-Down?

I am a big ecomm geek — from the first year Amazon was in business when I bought about $500 in books (primarily on Byzantine History, I am a Constantinople geek), to my present gig at Lenovo, where a major part of my portfolio of my responsibilities lies in getting customers in the virtual door of the virtual store, I have been, and continue to be a big fan of online shopping. Will it cure global warming, cut traffic, and drive the Long Tail? Sure, a little bit at least, and all of us, I’m sure, can make some testimonial to our love affair with the old online shoppe and the trips to the stores and malls it has spared us.

Over the weekend the august New York Times sounded the warning buzzer to the ecomm party, saying the progonisticators at Forrester and Jupiter and other crystal ball shops are predicting a slow down in ecomm growth rates. Well sure, we’re now in Year Twelve of the ecomm revolution, and as the venture capitalist Ben Rosen (Lotus, Compaq) once told me, it”s easy to double revenues when you start from nothing. The Times article had an interesting quote from a disillusioned online shopper:

“He and his wife, Liz Hauer, 51, a Macy’s executive, also shop online, but mostly for gifts or items that need to be shipped. They said they found that the experience could be tedious at times. “Online, it’s much more of a task,” she said. Still, Internet commerce is growing at a pace that traditional merchants would envy. But online sales are not growing as fast as they were even 18 months ago. “

Tedious. Memorize that word. Tedious is apt and accurate when it comes to describing the typical shopping experience. How many people dread the same form field fill-out (save those who use the Google auto-complete function), who enter into a shopping cart wondering if they will miss a required field, mistype a character, or run into some strange, opaque security threshold that reject orders that specify a different shipping address from a card’s billing address, or a vendor that screws military and government personnel seeking an APO delivery?

At Lenovo we’ve run in a serious rough path recently because of inaccurate Estimated Shipping Dates (ESDs) which give a shopper a sense of when they might receive their order, a crucial thing for small businesses and individuals who need a product to stay in business or start school. When the ESD is wrong — because the process for updating it is either manual or symptomatic of a broken back end system, then all hell breaks loose.

Dysfunctional ecommerce weighs heavily on my mind. Today, my wife confirmed for me what the Times was reporting. When the novelty wears off, when the sense of adventure in ordering a book online fades, when winning another eBay auction is as routine as buying a cauliflower … when that happens then the grumpiness follows.

So my wife decides to equip the household’s tennis players with some shoes, shorts, rackets, balls, etc.. Her business partner told her to order from a site, I think it is called “Tennis Warehouse” or something, but it doesn’t matter. The upshot is after spending close to an hour shopping, comparing, selecting and de-selecting, then committing the cart to her credit card, she received an email from the merchant asking to see a photocopy of her driver’s license, information about the originating bank, and other personal data that set her “phishing” scam bells a-ringing.

Fuggedabodit, I told her. Screw them. Go elsewhere. No merchant in their right mind asks for anything other than the little security code on the card. She was pissed, so pissed she called information, tracked the merchant down to San Luis Obispo, and flamed the first customer service rep unlucky enough to answer her call.

Turns out any order over $400 triggers the security measures. Solution? Split it into two orders — now she’s going on more than two hours for the transaction — resubmit, pay with PayPal and done.

Why can’t someone make an ecommerce experience that is seamless and secure and semi-fun? Remember when Amex came up with the lame-ass Blue Card? The one with a chip embedded in it? What was that about? Wave it over the laptop and watch the transaction go down? Not likely.

We may be a dozen years into the online commerce revolution, but it still feels like 1995 to me. Let’s “web 2.0-ify” the whole mess and get it to the next level.