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The site is now maintained as an historical archive, covering notable e-commerce news articles from the period 1999 to 2012.


Source: Industry Standard

Posted on April 14, 2000

      To take the pulse of brick-and-mortar retailers online, click on the store map at Wal-Mart's Web site (www.walmart.com). What you'll find behind the Amazon.com-like site architecture is the floor plan of your local superstore: products organized by department in aisles, with checkout registers and customer service at the door.

      Explore the Wal-Mart site a bit more and you'll discover a rigorous hierarchy, with many steps to take between the homepage and your selection. You'll need to use the Back button frequently to navigate the site, as there are few hyperlinks. And the navigation pages look like computer printouts, with only the occasional photo of smiling staffers (real people, not models) and a sprinkling of promotions - often unrelated to the shopper's indicated interests - populating the site.

      Only when you get to product descriptions do you find any serious attempt at merchandising - but even then it's the kind of terse, feature-centric descriptions you find on products lining store shelves. And, of course, this virtual storefront carries the same inventory you find in the physical store, and at the same price.

      It's perhaps not surprising that the leading retailer in America has a Web site that's consistent with the shopping experience at its physical store. Maybe we shouldn't read too much into this, since the site is clearly a work-in-progress. The Arkansas retailer's recent e-business flailings are well documented, including a much-delayed site launch and a partnership, announced in January, with Accel Partners to spin off Wal-Mart.com as a separate company. Still, the site raises an interesting question: How much does Wal-Mart.com's limitations - and the limitations of other legacy players online - stem from a mindset consciously or unconsciously fixed in the world of physical retailing?

      Take a look at the company's brick-and-mortar model. Wal-Mart's main competency is managing logistics, the ultimate form of linear thinking. The company is supply-side focused: The assumption is that if you optimize inventory turns and margin per linear foot, the customers will come. The store is not a vehicle for merchandising, but rather an efficient warehouse. Only at the individual product level is there room for real promotion.

      The store, the departments and the aisles are necessary evils to be made as linear, efficient and self-effacing as possible. Customers are meant to navigate themselves though this logical layout, attracted not by the quixotic or serendipitous, but by the low prices and the selection on the shelves. All this impersonality is offset by the "greeters" at the front of the store, of course. But the greeters dispense a diffuse friendliness, not gift ideas or advice on how to compare cookware or TVs, for instance.

      Wal-Mart's rigor, single-mindedness and excellence in the physical world seems to have imposed a mental straitjacket on its efforts in the virtual world. Maybe Wal-Mart's inability to succeed online is a fluke. To be sure, let's look at another legacy player, Williams-Sonoma, this time with the heritage of a catalog retailer. The company's homepage (www.williams-sonoma.com) features an exquisite, high-resolution photo next to a menu that resembles an engraved wedding invitation. A fresh color palette evokes spring, and white space illuminates the product presentation. Fulsome, adjective-rich text and gift ideas - by season, interest and price point - accompany product photos. Recipes and advice serve as soft-sell introductions to pots and placeware. And you see the same type of inventory that you find in the catalog, at the same price.

      Again, this architecture and design approach may be entirely appropriate for Williams-Sonoma. The site seeks to tempt the viewer with the pleasures of ownership; it's amenable to casual, almost aimless perusal, with sensory stimulation taking priority over navigation. It's like flipping through a catalog. Williams-Sonoma brings catalog-centric sensibility to the Web, just as Wal-Mart has done with its stores' charmless industrial efficiency. Perhaps each of these sites is exactly right for its target customers and the products it sells. But, at least in part, each reflects a legacy mindset.

      Contrast both these sites with the architecture of pure-play Cooking.com. Here we find the dense but breezy e-commerce interface popularized by Amazon: Tabs are located across the top with keyword search underneath; categories are down the left; there's small GIFs rather than large JPEGs, bright colors, lots of text and so forth. It is striking how many pure-play electronic retailers use these design elements. Try to find differences between the interfaces of eToys, CDnow and Barnesandnoble.com (now, effectively, a pure-play) - chances are, you won't find many. The "Amazon interface" is fast becoming a standard in its own right for pure-plays. But this, too, is not arbitrary.

      A core element of Amazon's value to consumers is reach, which allows it to carry a wider product selection than any physical retailer could possibly offer. Much the same is true of all the pure-plays, since the explosion of reach is what distinguishes the Internet marketplace from the physical one - and what incumbents so often fail to exploit. Exploiting reach means maximizing choice; that is, presenting as many alternatives in as clear and as flexible a way as possible. Hence text rather than atmospherics; multiple navigation routes rather than logical hierarchy; vertical, horizontal and layered menus; and lots and lots of links on each page.

      Reach enables not only selection but also interactivity. It is on the pure-play Web sites that we most frequently find the chat rooms, consumer reviews, ratings and other expressions of commercial democracy. Wal-Mart's engineers wouldn't think of giving the consumer a voice, and Williams-Sonoma's marketers would never allow the customers to disturb the tone of hushed reverence. Try another experiment. Open your browser preferences and change the default font to something wildly different, Arial Black for example. Then go to some favorite sites and note the effect. Amazon, eBay and Yahoo are unrecognizable; Wal-Mart and Williams-Sonoma look exactly the same. The difference lies in the extent to which Web site designers allow the visitor to control the appearance of a page.

      Part of the Amazon, eBay and Yahoo brand proposition is an affiliation with the consumer: They put consumers partially in control and meet them as equals. It is the same mindset that leads Amazon (in contrast to physical bookstores) to post negative reviews of the books it sells and publicly declare all its publisher-sponsored promotions. But the incumbents' brand propositions don't leave space for dialogue: Williams-Sonoma would not risk the irreverence, and Wal-Mart would never tolerate the inefficiency.

      The Amazon design paradigm shows how online retailing differs from traditional retailing by more than a change in medium. Online retailing allows for an explosion of reach that redefines how retailers help consumers make choices. And it allows for greater symmetry of information: dialogue, community and transparency replace the one-to-many asymmetries of traditional media. Exploding reach separates the interest of the online retailer from that of the manufacturer. Competition drives retailers to affiliate more closely with consumers' interests. The pure-plays, unfettered by the vested interests and mental baggage associated with traditional business models, are quicker to respond to these imperatives. The legacy players, no matter how much they may differ from each other, reveal their resistance to explosion with every site map, font choice and HTML tag.

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