E-commerce: A year later and still grumpy

A year ago I wrote about non-consumer-friendly Web sites and the state of e-commerce in the U.S. This seems like a reasonable time for an update.

The press estimates I used in last year's column turned out to be a bit optimistic. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce statistics, the growth in fourth-quarter sales from 2002 to 2003 was about 25%, which is on the low end of the 26% to 42% estimates. The value of those sales was about $15 billion, a bit lower than the $17 billion estimate. One number I used doesn't seem to make much sense, and I have no idea where I found it. I said last year that there were estimates in the press that online sales could amount to as much as 7.7% of total sales. Maybe the number referred to online holiday sales, but it is clearly not correct if it meant annual sales. The Commerce Department statistics show that the total amount of e-commerce is about 1.9%, up from 1.7% of total commerce, but nowhere near 7.7%. E-commerce is showing a good year-to-year growth at more than 20%, but it still has a long way to go before it becomes a significant part of the U.S. economy. Maybe that is why the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Act that I referred to last year seems to have gone nowhere (DocFinder: 5226).

After my complaint in last year's column about shopping sites that will not let you just buy something but rather insist that you set up some sort of account before they will let you spend your money, I got e-mail from a number of people who defended the practice. The writers, from such sites I assume, said that the rules are there to provide better customer service. I don't accept that. I see nothing customer-service-oriented in forcing people who might only buy one thing from your site in 10 years to set up an account that they will forget the password for (or use the same password that they use for their office computers - a real bad but too common practice). How is it customer-service-oriented to make me go through a time-consuming process to recover the password I used two or more years ago just so I can order something new? I'm all for a site offering such accounts, but to insist on it will reduce the number of customers that site gets.

That reminds me of a particularly annoying, and stupid, process that too many physical stores have now adopted. The cashier wants to know your name when you try to pay for something, even if you pay in cash.

Even Radio Shack finally realized that this was a privacy invasion and stopped doing it. For these stores to continue to ask (even, like today at my local computer/electronic store, when there is a long line of people waiting to pay) is annoying but too many of them are also plain stupid. When I tell the cashier that I will not provide my name, he has to pick a random person from the database because there is no way to just say that the customer refused to provide the information.

Thus the store never finds out how many people do not want to provide the information. They also corrupt the information in their databases by assigning my purchases to someone else. That is stupid.

Well, happy holiday season anyway. I hope you had more fun shopping - if that is something you do - than I did.

Disclaimer: I did not ask the B-School what its opinion is about forced accounts or other business stupidities, so the above is my own holiday rant.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

The 10 most powerful companies in enterprise networking 2022