It's online or bust!

My wife and I had an argument about the future of e-commerce recently. We were watching a television interview about e-commerce. The talking head foolishly said every company would have to be online in the next five or so years or face going out of business and my wife snorted at the idea.

My wife and I had an argument about the future of e-commerce recently.

We were watching an interview on Telstra Business about e-commerce. The talking head foolishly said every company would have to be online in the next five or so years or face going out of business and my wife snorted at the idea.

I, to compound the foolishness, queried her as to her snort. “What’s wrong with that?” I asked. “I would say that’s the conservative point of view at least.”

The TV had moved on to other things and I was left to defend this position on my own. I should let you know that my wife was president of the debate society when we were at university. She still holds the Mix and Match Impromptu Debating trophy - she simply refuses to give it back.

“Are you telling me that every single business in the country if not the world must be online within five years or face going broke? I don’t think so.”

“That’s right” I replied, feeling the ground drop out from beneath my argument. “So you’re saying every plumber, every pizza parlour, every trousers-taken-up-while-you-wait, work-from-home, cash-only business will have to become an e-commerce company or go out of business? Is that what you’re saying?”

I had to stop to think about that for a moment, but I was pretty certain about this one, and I’ll explain it to you in a manner which I could only wish I’d used that morning.

As I said last week, I’ve just come back from CeBit 2000 in Germany and the one over-riding message was mobile Internet. Users will access e-commerce facilities via their cellphones while they’re out on the street. If you’re not able to tell them who you are and where you are when they want to know, you’re not going to be getting their dollars in a hurry.

This requires a shake-up of the whole e-commerce business. Here’s a test for you: next time someone tries to sell you on e-commerce, e-business, e-finance or whatever e-slogan they’ve just thought up, ask them what they’re doing about mobile users and see how they respond. If they haven’t got a concrete answer for you, and let’s face it, how many concrete e-commerce packages have you seen - then tell them to take a hike. If they can’t reach out to the next generation of shopper then you should have no time for them.

For me, the problem with e-commerce, B2C e-commerce that is, is that it’s all been about buying things from your PC. That’s great if you know what you want, like the look of the picture and don’t mind not getting to handle the goods yourself before shelling out the money. We’ve had this for years - it's called a catalogue, and it's great for some things, less good at others.

Mobile e-commerce is shopping with attitude. Let’s call it m-commerce, or better still, me-commerce. I’ll walk down the street with my phone at the ready, and find out just how many men’s clothing shops there are within walking distance. I’ll find out how many sell the kind of clothes I wear before I go in and could even be enticed to a particular shop with a discount. Give it a few years and my phone will draw me a map on how to reach the store. Once I’m in the store I can pay using my phone since my SIM card is as secure as any credit card. My phone now has even more demographic information on me to better target my shopping in the future and I haven’t wasted the entire day wandering the streets looking at shops that aren’t quite right.

E-commerce at its finest - helping to separate the shopper from the money as painlessly as possible. If she's lucky, I'll invite my wife on one of these shopping trips.

Of course, this also means a huge amount of effort spent on new technology on your side of the equation as well - none of this will work without the infrastructure being put in place. Better dust off those business cases again.

Paul Brislen is a regular columnist and reporter for Computerworld.

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