Online vs Off

Devangshu Dutta

February 16, 2009

The internet seems to be as much alien territory for bricks and mortar retailers as catalogues are. (More on

The internet seems to be as much alien territory for bricks and mortar retailers as catalogues are. Bricks and mortar retailers seem to struggle with the medium – most of them try to graduate from their corporate web brochures to transaction sites, and end up doing injustice to both. Many of them are not able to figure out how to create the traffic to their online store, how to create the excitement and liveliness to convert their traffic into transactions, and how to take the transactions to their final closure in terms of payment and delivery in a delightful way.

Of course, there are some notable exceptions – but possibly they are notable because they are exceptions rather than the norm. Many bricks and mortar retailers are also tied down by systems and processes that work very well for their physical store and distribution network, but fail miserably during the online experience.

However, what’s surprising is that even the basics of e-business seem to be escaping bricks and mortar retailers. Starting with search results.

Retailwire quotes a recent study by a search service provider which found that “online retailers claimed 38 percent of the search listings in 2006, 30 percent in 2007 and 35 percent in 2008. The next biggest category was shopping comparison sites at 25 percent in 2006, 26 percent in 2007, and 19 percent in 2008. Brick-and-mortar retailers lagged at 8 percent in 2006, and 12 percent in both 2007 and 2008.”

However, the study does show a steadily improving share of search listings on the part of the bricks and mortar retailers the last three years. It would be interesting to see whether the pressures of the market will push them to get more aggressive and strategic with their online presence to show a marked improvement in share in 2009.

Staying with the fundamentals: customer experience is another such, and it’s amazing to see what “attention to basics” can do for business. has bucked the recessionary trends displayed by other retailers in the US, with an 18% sales growth in the last quarter of 2009 and a 9% growth in profits.

I’ve shopped on since the year they launched. Every experience has been completely satisfactory, some delightful. On some occasions Amazon has picked my pocket – made me spend on stuff that I wouldn’t have bought otherwise, by their very helpful suggestions of what others had bought while they were browsing my selections. On other occasions they’ve saved me money, time and heartburn by providing comprehensive customer reviews at a click.

In my experience, Amazon’s sustainable advantage is their customer-orientation – the technology, the supply chain, the design – everything is geared to making the buying experience as good as possible. A Retail 101 principle that many other retailers – online and offline – seem to ignore every day.

At the end of the day, e-commerce is another channel to reach out to customers – some existing customers who may need to be connected with during additional shopping opportunity windows, others who are completely new to your wares and may never walk into your physical stores. But treating it as an additional graft that will work with your existing operating DNA is a mistake –  the online channel is distinctive and needs fresh thinking on the business model and consumer interaction from beginning to end. At the same time we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath-water, and forget the basics of understanding and addressing the needs of consumers.