Why Electronic Commerce isn't a cake walk


I've written before about the problems with electronic commerce. In WI#44, I mentioned how shopping on-line is like trying to find parking spaces at the mall before Christmas, only to find no signage on the stores and little in stock once you get inside. This was all brought home to me after seeing a real-life email exchange between a friend of mine and a support person at Insight.com.

Insight is a mail-order PC supply house where you can order stuff directly from their web site. I have made some small editing changes and hidden the identities but otherwise faithfully reproduce the following correspondence between two live humans, a customer and the Insight support person.

Message #1:

Dear Insight Support:

I waded through 140 Toshiba products to find the three I wanted and put them in my "shopping cart." Then I floundered around, eventually selecting "check out" option.

For some reason, the checker didn't want my money. Instead of asking for a credit or debit card number, it wanted me to set up an account. I selected a "Home" account and filled in the information. Within a half-second of the time I clicked on Register Me, I was told my information couldn't be verified and to re-register.

When I clicked to re-register, I was presented with the same form I'd filled, but now, of course, it was blank. I gave up trying to shop at Insight, and in the span of time it took me to type these comments, I was able to place my order over the phone with one of your competitors. Not only was I able to save some money but their "check out" live human was more than happy to take my American Express card.

So much for electronic commerce, early 1997 style.


John Q. Customer

Message #2:

Dear John Q. Customer:

We have made more changes to our on-line ordering. You can place an order at Insight by a variety of means, such as fax, 800-number voice, email an order form or shop on our web site.


Insight Support

Message #3:

Dear Insight Support:

Your message really fails to get at the heart of my complaint. Your on-line ordering system didn't work. It wasted my time. It even encouraged me to start and have the same troubles all over again. Your ordering system doesn't do what it is supposed to do.

While having alternative ordering options may be a comfort to you and Insight, it doesn't answer my concern: I can't use the primary ordering system you've set up on your Web site, the one that I am automatically drawn into when I enter your site and put an item in my shopping basket. Unfortunately, most shoppers will go elsewhere, not to try alternatives or to take the time to write as I have.


John Q. Customer

I am reminded about a situation about a dozen years ago, back when I toiled in the Information Center at Transamerica Occidental Insurance. We had developed an on-line ordering system to specify and purchase PCs for our end-users. The system was written in Focus and ran on our MVS mainframes. It was quirky, complex, expensive (a full-time programmer attended to it, not to mention all the mainframe resources required) and user-hostile. Fortunately, just the folks in the Information Center were its sole users. It contained over 70 different screens, and took a few days to train someone new how to use.

Remember, this is back in the days when there were two types of monitors (color and mono) and three types of video adapters (anyone still have a Hercules card?), and 640 k of RAM was a lot of memory.Once I would place an order for a computer, the configuration would have to be approved through a tortured chain of command before the order would actually result in a PO being printed. And I haven't even mentioned the process by which we would check the incoming machine's configuration against the order, which was a whole 'nuther deal.

I used to take delight in seeing reports that showed that the total number of monitors was less than the number of PCs -- did we forget to order someone a monitor or did people just bring their own? Anyway, our Focus system was everything wrong about end-user computing and electronic commerce. It seems as if it has survived at Insight.com.

I don't want to be all gloom and doom around here. I came across a nice series of links maintained by the folks at CIO magazine on electronic commerce: You'll find white papers by vendors, commentary from a number of trade and professional publications, and other thoughtful opinions on the topic at this site.

Sitekeeping and self-promotions dep't

My latest effort for Infoworld is a review of NetCarta's WebMapper, a web management and analysis tool that has recently been acquired by Microsoft. You can read the article here.

David Strom
+1 (516) 944-3407
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entire contents copyright 1997 by David Strom, Inc.