Web Informant #230, 3 January 2001:
There are no second chances when it comes to eCommerce


A recent article in the New York Times business travel column mentions problems with the FAA website, and is a good illustration of how tenuous the customer connection can be.

The issue happened over the holiday weekend, when major snowstorms were causing havoc with airline schedules. The FAA site, provides real-time status of major urban airports, and will tell you if the airport is experiencing any system-wide delays due to weather or congestion. The only trouble was when one traveler tried to access the site over the holidays, and someone at the FAA forgot to update the information. Ouch.

I have always maintained that a web storefront operator has only to make one big mistake and the customer is gone forever. There are no second chances when it comes to shopping on the web.

Why is this the case? Is it because we are all impatient people, with hair-triggers? Is it the increasing overall level of cynicism in our society? Perhaps, but I think the reason is a lot simpler. We all expect our computer systems to work flawlessly, and when they don't, our level of frustration rapidly reaches the boiling point. Witness many people's comments about Windows crashes as a good example here.

Or better yet, in keeping with the calendar, let's recall the famous HAL9000 computer from Kubrick's movie, 2001. It failed big-time, killing all but one of its human crewmembers because it was given an impossible mission profile. (Well, maybe there were some other reasons, too.) And the computer, which prided itself on never making a mistake, became just as frustrated as ordinary humans when it realized it was making mistakes.

(A great commentary on the lessons learned from the movie can be found here, a recent column by Dan Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury.)

But there is something else going on here, when it comes to someone visiting a site, with credit card at the ready and not being able to buy what was intended. It has to do with the potential level of instant gratification that we were promised by the Internet, and the potential time savings we assume will occur when we go to shop online. When these benefits don't' materialize, we get mad and quickly head for other destinations, if we can.

The Pew Research Center, in a recent phone interview of several thousand Internet and non-computer users, found that "nearly one in four (24%) of Internet users reported beginning a [eCommerce] transaction but then stopping before completing it. This is the same number-24%-as those who bought holiday gifts over the Internet." That is a pretty poor record, indeed.

These means that site operators can't afford to mess up. Any of the following situations will probably cause customers to head for their cars and the real shopping malls:

All of these things are near fatal problems, and can cause customers to leave the premises never to return.

I hope all of your holiday shopping, whether offline or on, was without significant problems and that you all had a pleasant and healthy holidays. And I wish everyone a tremendous 2001, without any HAL9000s around to create any problems.

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David Strom
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