The key to success for all brick-and-mortar retailers today is simply stated but hard to implement. That is to connect in-store inventories to the Web and, thus, to customers. It makes no economic sense for Home Depot to ship me plywood from a central site, just as it makes no economic sense for Sears to ship refrigerators from a central site. But if I can reserve product from my local store, then use the existing system to get it here (either picking it up or paying for standard delivery options already offered in stores), I'm very likely to go online for it.
The problem is that in-store inventories aren't done in real-time at most stores. The solution is to route in-store orders through a "clearance process" which includes delivery arrangements.
An employee will go to the shelf after a "reservation" is made based on the store's online inventory, a reservation secured with a credit card number. The employee will make sure the product is available in the required quantities. Then the employee will contact the customer (by phone or e-mail - the customer's choice) to confirm the order and arrange for delivery. This is exactly what would happen if the customer walked up to them and asked for the product in-person. The credit card is charged only after the delivery costs are added and the total cost (plus the delivery time) are approved. This is exactly what would happen if the customer went to the store.
The first step - linking in-store inventory to the Web - is mainly a technical challenge. The second step - linking in-store employees to local delivery networks - requires a Web site and e-mail access in each store. The third step is simply a management challenge. When all this is done reliably, chain stores will come to dominate the Web because they'll be delivering true customer service. Until then, they won't, because they don't now .
Home Depot's solution is clued-in because it recognizes the problem. Its deliveries will start only in Las Vegas because it wants to make sure it has stuff before delivering it. The Standard misses the fact that Home Depot currently delivers a large portion of its inventory - anything too big to go into a minivan or onto the back of a pick-up truck is usually delivered.
Integrating the Web with in-store and telephone channels requires more than a pretty site with a centralized fulfillment solution. It requires empowering local stores (and local employees) to give Web customers what they give those who walk in the door.
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I write daily for ClickZ, and weekly at Andover.News. I write monthly for NetMarketing, Boardwatch, and Intellectual Capital. I've been in Advertisi000ng Age and the Chicago Tribune . Once every other month I'm in CLEC Magazine. Twice each month I'm at OneChannel.Net and I've recently joined the staff at ISPWorld. You can always buy my book . Subscription instructions are at the bottom of each issue.
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Takes on the News
Corporate Sites Turn Unfriendly
Spam is one motive for the paucity of contact information at most corporate sites. But so is the growing trend among angry consumers to call names and phone numbers found on Web sites, with the expectation that responsive companies will care about their problems. The fact is more and more companies no longer provide useful press contact information online. Oh, the releases are still there, but no self-respecting reporter will use them without a call for confirmation and to get questions asked.
When a reporter's on deadline an e-mail address or generic Web form (aimed at qualifying prospects for the sales force) makes my blood boil. I find myself chatting with corporate operators who don't know who to connect me with. This hurts the quality of my stories, and hurts the quality of the coverage these companies can attract. The job was actually easier in the pre-Web days when contact information was routinel0y posted at the bottom of each release.
If you don't want to be contacted, do us all a favor and simply declare bankruptcy. Otherwise tell me whom to call. If you need a gatekeeper in front of that number make it a human gatekeeper.
The Human Factor in Technology
Web sites have gotten awfully complex. You want content separated from its presentation so you need a content management server. You need the database handled separately so you need a database server. You need encrypted ecommerce handled separately and need an ecommerce server. Then there are your registration servers, and the servers to analyze your logs. Every site these days is now a server farm, and we haven't even begun to get into the links between that and your corporate Intranet.
But you can rely too much on technology and not enough on people. Many companies are doing just that. They refuse public feedback by not properly posting addresses and phone numbers. They discourage worker initiative by tracking their clicks and firing those who don't behave according to strict guidelines.
The secrets of a successful site are simple. Encourage customer feedback in all its forms and respond to it quickly. Create incentives for workers to be pro-active in their own Web use, building their own address books and bookmarks and encourage sharing.
The best tools are the simplest. Computers serve people, and require them as well.
Changing technology is forcing many sites to consider expensive software that may not be ready for prime time.
The problems are obvious. Workers without knowledge of HTML are working together on documents that must go on the Web. Pages are being built for corporate Intranets that combine word processing, spreadsheet, and database links workers want to share with outsiders. Basic changes (your logo, your name) must be implemented immediately, and no one can work that fast. Then there's all the talk about accessing the Web through cell phones and PDAs - can't you format current pages for that, or do you have to build a second site?
All these problems are driving companies to a new class of content management software from companies like MediaSurface, Eprise and Intranet Solutions. The programs can be installed for under $100,000, while market leaders Interwoven and Vignette (who aren't hurting for business) are charging 10 times that much. Some analysts fear the buyers will be orphaned when IBM and Microsoft, as expected, finally launch Web content management products.
Even figuring out what content management is can be a bear for a site manager, as I learned while researching a future story for B2B Magazine on the subject. The niche is so hot that catalog management, database management, e-commerce, asset management and even personalization companies are claiming a hold on the market. Oh, and you're supposed to pore through all this while getting ready for the crucial Christmas selling season.
Content management separates the words and files on your site from the way they look to visitors. It should provide templates and support your chain of command, so what's posted is controlled and you can figure out who did what. If it's to be worthwhile your content management program should also be based on technologies that will be around for a while - most of the new programs I found are based on XML and Java.
Worse, this is not the kind of problem that lends itself easily to an ASP solution. Unless you want someone else running your business (and everything in it) this is a problem you need to deal with yourself. The problem also points out the risks in using an ASP anyway. If the folks hosting your site don't know content management, or if they make you handle it badly, you will find yourself east of the rock and west of the hard place.
I'm not recommending specific products here, but I am recommending you seriously address a critical problem. The cost of dealing with content management will rise until you find a solution to it. You can't afford to tear down your site anymore and build it back up in the background - if your site is down you're out of business. The best analogy is to the road you drove to work on - you have to rebuild the freeway while the traffic flows around you. This requires what road builders call engineering.
Most of what we cover here involves big questions like what you should sell and how you should sell it. Frankly, the details of technology give me a headache. Writing about content management has proven difficult for me, and my only sure conclusion is you need to worry about it.
Clued-in is James Surowiecki , who now writes at The New Yorker. This call is overdue - every time I read something at that magazine which makes sense these days, I wind up finding his byline under it.
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