The year of the e-comm shakeout

'It was fun while it lasted' may be the catchcry for the first part of 2000, before the April Nasdaq crash pulled the e-commerce hype back to reality.

"It was fun while it lasted" may be the catchcry for the first part of 2000, before the April Nasdaq crash pulled the e-commerce hype back to reality.

But after 1999 ended on a price-high for technology stocks, 2000 ended with the lingering demise of business-to-consumer (B2C) electronic commerce, along with some flying flops, the growth of business-to-business (B2B) and the birth of online marketplaces.

The e-commerce and e-business landscape changed dramatically as people finally began to understand what the terms meant and where it was all heading. Enterprise resource planning (ERP) implementation work slowed down while legacy systems integration work picked up.

Today, some real e-business is being done.

The catalyst for the major changes this year came on April 4 when a judge ruled in favour of the US Justice Department's antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft. The Nasdaq plunged to historic lows in the following days, culminating in the US on April 14 - renamed forever as "Black Friday".

New Zealand waited anxiously over the weekend and our own "Black Monday", April 17, saw local companies take a hammering.

In the months that followed, multimillionaire Eric Watson, probably the country's biggest investor in e-commerce, saw his fortune in listed stocks halve - and subsequently set his sights on bloodstock and the Warriors.

Initial public offerings (IPOs) of dotcoms skidded to a virtual halt and online retailer EStarOnline made it clear it was stopping its $10 million float because of the lacklustre market. More recently - but in the works since June - Watson and two of his colleagues ditched plans for their investment company Qixel Capital Group to list on the Nasdaq.

But soon commentators were saying the shake-out had been sensible and allowed companies to find their true valuation.

It didn't stop a number of technology companies listing on the NZSE's New Capital Market. Nor did it stop companies such as Brocker Technology Group, which listed on the Nasdaq in August; Conduit, distributor Renaissance Corporation's e-commerce arm, which says it is heading towards a listing in Singapore, loosely dubbed the new Nasdaq; and IT advocate John Blackham, who signalled his e-commerce company X-Sol would list in the US.

Two of e-commerce's major highlights were the multimillion-dollar sales of Christchurch-based search engine company GlobalBrain to US broadcaster NBC Internet and accounting software company exo-net to Australian software company Solution 6.

But much of the general public's attention was focused on B2C, as giants such as online book e-tailer Amazon.com continued to not make money. Overseas retail outfits such as Boo.com and Pets.com collapsed and, closer to home, Australian-based Buy.com and dstore did the same.

Here, Advantage Group, Pacific Retail Group and Whitcoulls parent Blue Star Group watched its e-tailer Flying Pig perform "a flying flop" by burning through its capital, then lay off staff and relocate to its former garage, before finally selling to publishing group IT Media. Online portal E-force blamed the worldwide downturn and the low Kiwi dollar as it changed direction to B2B by buying supply chain software manufacturer PSI, while cosmetics retailer Beauty Direct admitted it needed physical retail stores and partners. Transtasman auction site UBid closed its doors.

But as B2C declined, B2B grew. Companies such as Fletcher Energy and Carter Holt Harvey tendered for information on e-procurement platforms and both Renaissance's Conduit subsidiary and Neil Taylor's NetworksDirect site announced they had sold more than $1 million worth of goods through their sites.

Auckland-based Genie Systems won internet-based ordering system deals with the babies section of Toys'R'Us and Singaporean oil rig company Keppel Fells, Freightways put several courier companies online in a hub called Fetch and NZ Post began investing in e-commerce companies as post volumes felt the effects of email.

That's not to say B2B wasn't a tough slog. Last week Advantage's shares were in the $1.30 range after a high of $5.60. However, at its end-of-year general meeting the company said one prong of its new strategy is to upskill all its staff in the strengthening legacy systems integration and packages area.

Perhaps the biggest trend in e-commerce this year was the growth of online marketplaces, predicted by US venture capitalist Arthur Sculley to account for 40% of all B2B e-commerce within the next four years. Online marketplaces, or hubs where buyers and sellers can offer goods, post tenders and perform auctions for goods and services, are both "vertical" - that is, within industries - or "horizontal", spanning industries and often focusing on the processes of maintenance, repair and operations.

Around half a dozen marketplaces have arisen here, with some, such as BioLab Scientific's OneZone, being built around US platform Ariba and others such as SupplyNet built around US platform Commerce One. Others have been built from scratch, such as Norcross Printing's e://volution, while the rural and primary sectors such as forestry (with WoodNet and Lignus) have shown they don't plan on missing the boat. Two portal initiatives in the dairy industry, Fencepost.com and RD1.com, plan on introducing e-commerce features soon.

This re-engineering of the market has also led to both the consulting market and law firms reassessing their business models and building up their e-commerce practises.

In the final stages of the year, e-commerce was formally and legally recognised under the leadership of IT Minister Paul Swain. There was the government's e-commerce summit, the reading of an Electronic Transactions Bill in parliament, the inclusion of e-crimes in a Crimes Amendment Bill, the Commerce Commission fining several e-tailers under the Fair Trading Act, and the formation of a venture capital industry association to join a Knowledge Industries Council.

Venture capitalist IT Capital showed there was money to be made in e-commerce companies by posting a profit.

Looking forward to e-business trends next year, Computerworld predicts first stage seed and angel funding will grow to join the venture capital industry. Marketplaces will boom, though some will fail dramatically. More and more technology services companies will change tack to target this area as Advantage has done, or move to build the middlewear and legacy integration pieces to get it going.

Online buying federations - where corporates band together to lower suppliers prices through sheer scale, such as Australia's Cyberlynx and corProcure's members have done - will happen here, and New Zealand companies will join global exchanges.

B2C will return, mostly as the domain of the "clicks and mortar" retailers who will utilise their traditional distribution chains and implement crucial CRM (customer relationship management) software.

But 2001 is the year of broadband, with the Southern Cross Cable and Telecom's CDMA network turning attention back to the consumer and the individual user's entertainment dreams. Here comes the full potential of B2C websites, interactive television, instantly ordered takeaways and full-length digital movies.

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