IT professionals around the world are hearing the footsteps of the holiday shopping season grow louder with every passing day. And with the volume of online shopping expected to double this year over last, electronic-commerce sites are getting creative in how they serve their customers during the four-month crush that will make or break many retail businesses.
Although last year served as a learning experience for many unprepared online retailers, this year will be a much different story, with customer expectations soaring and vendors' futures at stake.
`There will be more distinct winners and losers this year, with more savvy online shopping customers and higher expectations for customer service,' said Rob Hafker, a managing principal in the retail division of IBM's Global Services group.
In the latest phase of business-to-consumer e-commerce, customers are looking for flawless Web site performance, real-time credit and inventory checks, and integrated customer service and call centre supportMany retailers have been preparing for this holiday season - which typically accounts for about 40 per cent of a retailer's annual revenue - since January. In an attempt to avoid devastating long-term damage to their brands, vendors are employing a number of new technologies to assure positive customer experiences.
Rather than throwing endless amounts of hardware at its online ordering system, Mary Kay Cosmetics chose to increase the performance of its Windows NT systems with software from Storm.
`We learned the hard way that scalable doesn't necessarily mean hardware or software - it's a combination,' said Gary Hartley, electronic-business development manager at Mary Kay in Dallas, which sells cosmetics to more than 500,000 sales representatives over the Web.
`It is not linear growth when you add hardware,' said Sam Leinhart, CEO of Storm. `Adding another CPU only gets you another 25 per cent.'
Believing that pricing on the Internet will eventually become irrelevant, online consumer goods retailer WorldSpy has con-centrated its efforts on a high-performance back-end order- fulfilment system.
The system promises real-time verification of credit cards, inventory checking and tracking, and automated fulfilment.
Although investing in technology will continue to be crucial to companies' success in e-commerce, having the personnel to back it up will be equally important.
Music retailer Rock.com is hoping to give its customer service representatives a leg-up by offering personalised chat software to guide customers through the buying experience. The technology, from eGain, enables service representatives to push pages with helpful information to users, and simultaneously communicate with as many as four customers at a time via an instant-message dialogue box.
Analysts are predicting more than $6 billion worth of e-commerce sales this season, but if an online retailer misses out on its piece of that holiday pie, they are in danger of losing much more than that.
`All of the advertising consumers see is telling them that the Internet is always on, and these people don't have the patience for outages, missing pages, or out-of-stock items,' said Mike May, digital commerce analyst at Jupiter Communications.
`If merchants don't deliver, they will alienate their customers, not just for this year, but for 2001, 2002, and 2003 as well,' May said.