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The Web can Bite Back!

Survey Recommends Common Sense Online Strategy

By Jim Bray

If you or your company are planning to blaze a trail into the world of e-commerce, the results of new study may interest you.

The study was done in Canada by consulting firm Deloitte and Touche in conjunction with the Retail Council of Canada and, though it was aimed at the Canadian marketplace, the omnipresent World Wide Web makes it just as valid for US and other businesses.

The survey looked at the kind of online experience e-commerce sites offered to potential buyers, which I think is one of the most important considerations in designing an “e-store,” yet which is all too often ignored. I’ve ranted before about the depressing and apparently increasing number of Web sites that insist on bombarding their potential customers with glitzy animations and other Web site toys that, while interesting and/or cool to look at, do more to show customers how bright the Web designers are than they do to offer customers a straightforward way to find the things for which they’re actually looking.

After all, it doesn’t matter how nice the lights are on that big Kmart sign on the building if people can’t find the door into the store.

The study found that – surprise, surprise! – the same fundamentals that work in “brick and mortar” retailing apply to the virtual world as well. This is undoubtedly why a major concern expressed by online shoppers was “customer service” (well, “duh!”), something that’s often overlooked in the stampede to cash in on the digital revolution.

The top Web sites singled out by the survey weren’t necessarily the most attractive, but they were generally clean, functional, and straightforward.

Check out some of the sites to see what I mean. They include and, both of which are unattractive but functional. Then there’s,, and the survey’s top e-commerce site Sears Canada (, which beat out its mother company’s.

Another winner, a Canadian electronics retailer called Future Shop (, even offers its surfers background articles on products and technologies so they can make smarter buying decisions. All of these sites feature easy navigation, good product information, and no nonsense interfaces.

The people behind the study have come up with a set of recommendations for companies and/or entrepreneurs planning to put that better mousetrap onto the WWW, including some pretty mundane but common sense suggestions.

For instance, they tell you to “do the boring stuff first.” This means you need to come up with an online philosophy and an infrastructure that will let your Web site do what you want it to. This could be as simple as arranging for enough bandwidth to handle the demands of your surfing public while ensuring that, if you’re building a digital offshoot to your brick and mortar business, your branches aren’t working at cross purposes or competing for the same customers.

Then there’s Web design itself. An “engaging” site is recommended, which means the site should be interesting and attractive. Flash – or any other innovation coming down the pipe – is fine if used intelligently, but remember that the more fancy graphics and toys you have, the slower the site will download, especially if the surfers don’t have high speed Internet access, and they may not wait.

Sites should also be easy to navigate and understand. In fact, nearly half of the survey’s respondents complained about problems finding their way around e-commerce sites. A straightforward navigation bar and a well-functioning search engine can be a Godsend here; otherwise, customers might as well just stand in the aisle of the real world store waiting for those elusive sales clerks who never seem to get off the phone.

A couple of other important considerations are your online ordering system, which should be robust and foolproof, and you need to ensure the privacy and security of your customers’ information. This latter point cannot be overemphasized!

It’s also essential to ensure you actually have the products you claim to have on your Web site. The main reason many, if not most, people are at your site in the first place is to save themselves some time and effort (and money!). If buying online from you is a hassle, they’ll go elsewhere and find a company that backs up its talk with action.

Of course, that’s the bottom line with selling in the real world, too.

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.


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January 31, 2006