Tired and Wired in E-Commerce

I recently conducted two transactions online: booked a trip to Florida and purchased flowers as a gift. The two experiences showed me how far some e-commerce categories have come — and how far others still have to go.

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, e.g., what the bouquet would actually look like, or how long it would last.

For many categories, e-commerce has come a long way since the days when buying something on Amazon.com made you a pioneer. But others still seem to be stuck in 1996. Here’s my roundup of which categories offer the latest and greatest features to make shopping fun, or at least painless — and which ones still feel mired in 1990s features and service.

WIRED:

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 in the shoe itself.

Fashion — Today, even the highest-end couture is now available to anyone, no matter where they live, via sites like saks.com and emporioarmani.com. Destinations like Bluefly.com  make these items (or at least a few of them) available at deeply discounted prices. New services like Ideeli have even 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 farecast.com will even tell you whether the fare for your particular route will rise or fall. Seat Guru will help you find the best seat, no matter which aircraft or airline. And sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp provide access to hundreds of reviews for any given hotel, airline or restaurant.

TIRED:

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 novelty sites like Zillow, this category still feels woefully lacking — especially surprising given the high level of involvement in this purchase. 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 one needs 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, CareerBuilder, 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 positions advertised. 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 e-tailers — it just takes a little creativity and (as always) sensitivity to consumer needs. Following 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 vault.com on job search sites to let users find out more about a company, warts and all? Solve some of the scary mysteries for consumers and they 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 for 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.

Mark Cregar is president and principal of Emerging Marketing Consulting. He has held senior marketing posts at Disney, Warner Bros., Coca-Cola and Nabisco. His views on digital marketing trends can be found at www.emergingmarketing.blogspot.com.