- For millions of consumers, last holiday season featured an Amazon.com box -- or another e-tailer's wares -- under the tree for the first time.
But along with the convenience of ordering gifts online, many experienced the frustrations of undelivered goods and the sorting out of botched orders.
From an online consumer's perspective, this year won't be radically different. But the thinning of the e-tailing ranks, which appears to be increasing just as the shopping season begins, points to a year in which traditional retailers are under the gun to prove their web-worthiness.
Rather than megamarketing campaigns from lavishly funded dot-coms, the story this year is brick-and-mortar retailers pitching the convenience of combined online and store shopping. If consumers are lucky, basic order fulfillment, customer service, and merchandising will supercede the hype and novelty of hitting the Submit button and hoping for the best.
Now retailers are coming up with new systems to address solid fulfillment: outsourcing, maintaining parallel online and store inventories, and fulfilling orders via existing distribution centers.
Of course, pure-play e-tailers are not completely shut out of the game, just as catalogue companies got along without physical locations for years. The more tech-savvy e-tailers can still get a leg up with sophisticated systems for analysing customer data, product presentation and search, and sophisticated customer service.
But the stakes are much higher for all retailers. For starters, consumers are more sophisticated and demanding. This year many will make use of combined shopping channels, shopping online, and doing in-store returns.
The financial environment is shifting quickly, too, as the crash of many business-to-consumer retailers accelerates. Wall Street and Main Street won't have as much patience this year.
Can dot-coms compete with a multichannel experience of virtual and physical storefronts?