Web Informant #250, 30 May 2001:
Running out of ink


I spent the better part of a day hunting down some printer ink cartridges a few weeks ago, and came across the dark underbelly of otherwise fine web storefronts. And to make matters worse, after all that online shopping I ended up buying the cartridges at physical retail store. It wasn't for lack of trying. These sites all had one thing in common: they never indicated during the entire eCommerce process whether or not the ink cartridges were in actually stock. Places like Buy.com, Outpost.com, and others - all of which are basically good, solid, eCommerce operations - fell short in this area.

Those of you that own ink jet printers know how frustrating it is to find yourself out of ink. Those cheap printers consume vast quantities of not-so-cheap ink and paper. And you can go through ink quickly once your kids find out that they can print everything in color, from their most mundane homework assignments to crisp digital photographs that can rival ones taken with ordinary film cameras. On top of this, every printer has its own special kind of cartridge, of course.

When I tried to find the cartridge for my Epson printer, I ran into problems. First I went to Epson's own web site, which has a very nice way to personalize the storefront so that I can bring up a reorder list for my supplies for my particular printer. I very quickly saw that they were out of stock on my items. It was nice of them to tell me up front, before I got several pages down the road and in the thick of trying to complete my order. So I went elsewhere, thinking, this can't be too hard.

It was. These other web merchants would gladly sell me the ink, only they were out of stock too. One vendor went so far as to call me the next day and apologize for being out of stock - this was after I navigated through their web pages to find the right kind of cartridge, carefully comparing its part number with the ones that I had copied down from Epson's site to make sure that I was ordering the right part. Calling me was a nice (and expensive) touch, although I would have preferred if they just stated up front at the time I was searching for the product that they were just as out of ink as my printer at home.

But maybe it costs this vendor less money to maintain a call center than to implement a web-based inventory system? In a twisted way, this makes sense, given that quite a few web storefronts don't have online inventory status information available to their customers.

I found my ink cartridge at a local Staples, it was the last one in the store. Boy, did I feel lucky that day. How did I figure out to go there? The vendor who called me was nice enough to suggest them as a possible alternative to their online store.

So my printer has ink. But I am not done with my complaining about Epson's own storefront. While they deserve kudos for their inventory status information, they don't win any awards with their Java Server Pages design. As an exercise, go to their home page now and see if you can get to their storefront. The only indication you are actually at their store can be found from the wording of the URL itself:


Click on anything on this page and you will see a new set of screens that has a link to "my account" on the top of the page. Now I enter my email address and my password, and I am brought to a very nice page to reorder supplies, track my order, and so forth. But because it has some nasty URL that is tied to a dynamically generated page, I can't bookmark this or return to it without first going through the main storefront page. That isn't good.

Personalized pages are terrific, but not if you can't get to them quickly and without a lot of clicking around. And web storefronts without online inventory information aren't good if your customers can't actually get the items they need. Ideally, you want both elements in your web site, and you want ways that customers can track their orders too via UPS/Fedex tracking numbers tied to their particular orders.

In the meantime, stock up on those spare ink cartridges. You never know when you will be running out of ink.

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David Strom
+1 (516) 944-3407
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entire contents copyright 2001 by David Strom, Inc.
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