If you're serious about establishing an e-commerce presence, you must gain an understanding of how customers shop online.
If buying a car were like shopping for a PC, you'd have to remember that the Toyota 3871i is a compact pickup with a four-cylinder engine from 1997, while the 3875xl would be a larger truck with a V6 engine built in 1999.
The Ford Taurus 360 would be a compact sedan with air conditioning, AM/FM radio, but no passenger-side airbag, while the Taurus 380 would be the same model with dual airbags, but no radio or air conditioning.
All Toyotas would be black, all Hondas white, and all Chevys beige. Only Saturns would be available in a variety of colours, and because of that, Saturn's acting CEO would be accused of concentrating on marketing and packaging at the expense of technical innovation.
You might think that the Internet would change all this, making it easier for consumers to find the computers they want. It ain't necessarily so.
Testing the waters of e-commerce, I recently went shopping for a notebook computer.
I visited sites such as CompareNet (www.compare.net) for specifications and suggested retail prices, Price Watch (www.pricewatch.com) for current street prices, and CNet's Computers.com (www.computers.com) for product specifications and links to resellers.
These sites were helpful research tools, although occasionally I found myself staring at large tables of data clearly intended to be read by machines, not humans.
Nevertheless, I was able to identify a few models that met my criteria. Had I stopped at that point and sat down to write this column, I would have had many positive things to say about how e-commerce enables comparison shopping.
But I didn't stop there - I actually tried to purchase a computer listed in these databases. And that's where things started to get ugly.
CompareNet and Price Watch provided no way for me to directly purchase the items I had compared.
Computers.com linked me to resellers' sites, but the product pages were nonexistent.
Instead, I got error messages such as "Search found 0 entries which contained RCP6195", and "Error retrieving Product page information".
I had better luck getting to an order form by going directly to e-retailers such as Buy.com (www.buy.com) and Insight (www.insight.com), but I found a smaller selection of products - and significantly higher prices.
Frankly, after all that running around, I was feeling discouraged about the current state of e-commerce.
One thing is clear, in the PC industry or any other: no amount of Web flash and dazzle will help a company that isn't prepared for the way consumers shop online. Dynamically served product pages are worthless if your product lines are too complex to compare, let alone describe, online.
Dylan Tweney is the content development manager for ARN's sister publication InfoWorld. E-mail him at email@example.com