Everyone is saying that e-shopping came of age this year. I have another theory: It’s that online shoppers finally turned 18 and got credit cards. My lay econometrics were borne out by the recent rumors that, after years of dominance, ”sex” has been replaced by ”MP3” as the most popular search topic on the Internet. As anyone who’s looked for downloadable music will tell you, it’s far easier to find an MP3 song by the Backstreet Boys than the Beach Boys.
That perceived shift from naughty to nice is significant for electronic commerce, because it shows that consumers have grown up and started taking the Web more seriously. Last year, e-purchases were mostly a novelty—hey, I just bought the Pam & Tommy Lee video off the Web! This year, people are paying for the same stuff they would at the local mall: music, books, clothing, Thumper Mini-Pro Massagers.
The Web, after all, offers a better selection than even the Mall of America; Yahoo! alone has more than 5,000 stores in its shopping area. And like an over-friendly store clerk, e-tailers are engineering their shops to give constant advice, offer product information, and make recommendations that suit your every whim.
Another change: Internet shopping used to belong to an elite group of men who remembered their wedding anniversaries. But women led this year’s online-growth spurt: According to a CommerceNet and Nielsen Media Research study, between August ‘98 and April ‘99 the number of female e-shoppers grew 80 percent. When Oprah Winfrey’s new cable show starts a 12-part series on all things Internet in February, that number will probably grow exponentially.
Oprah’s just now cutting the online cloth, but Diane Edgerly has been buying clothes for her 11-year-old daughter at delias.com for over a year. Edgerly, who lives in New York City, discovered one of the biggest advantages to e-shopping a few months ago, when she forgot that her cousin and his wife have birthdays one day apart. Instead of schlepping all over town and waiting in line at the post office, she went home, picked out a present online, and had it wrapped and shipped overnight to Massachusetts.
Her gift was one of more than 161 million packages that Internet retailers will send out by year’s end, according to Forrester Research. Still, don’t let all that cardboard fool you: While Forrester predicts that Internet sales will reach $20.2 billion this year — more than double the figure for 1998 — they still make up less than 2 percent of all U.S. retail purchases, reports the Boston Consulting Group. One reason the market remains so small is that online customer service stinks, if it’s available at all. In fact, the only blemish on 1998’s holiday season was that Web retailers found it hard to keep up with demand. ”People wouldn’t get what they ordered, or they wouldn’t get it in time, or they wouldn’t get it at all,” recalls Michael Zeisser, a partner at the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm. Burned by the PR debacle, e-merchants spent 1999 improving their fulfillment departments, while such stand-alone ”customer service portals” as Feedback Direct (www.feedbackdirect.com) have been created to help solve purchasing issues.