E-tail & Retail: The Felix and Oscar of Sales

Right now, online commerce and offline commerce are trying to work out how much they need one another — in kind of the same way The Odd Couple would.

Cue voice-over: “Can two kinds of retailers share a consumer market without driving each other crazy?”

Or, for that matter, driving you and me crazy.

Let me explain. As I entered Kmart recently, I noticed a computer terminal on the counter. It’s an in-store terminal that allows consumers to place orders on Kmart’s online affiliate, BlueLight.com, in case there is an item the brick-and-mortar store doesn’t have in stock. Very convenient, if you ask me.

Except for one thing. The terminal is on the service desk counter where returns are processed. So, if there happens to be a line of customers waiting to return merchandise, BlueLight.com is not accessible to anyone except the individual in line who happens to be in front of the terminal.

This dubious placement suggests that this Kmart store does not place great value on integrating the online shopping process into its stores — that like Felix and Oscar, one retailer is having trouble adjusting to the addition of a housemate.

Was this an isolated incident, or is e-commerce having a tough time getting any respect from the big daddy retailers?

Terminal Waiting

Shortly after my less-than-encouraging moment at Kmart, I went to a Service Merchandise store and was heartened to spot three computer terminals in an easy-to-access high profile spot next to the front entrance.

Unfortunately, one of the terminals was frozen and not usable. The second terminal moved at about the speed of the first computer I owned 10 years ago. The third terminal was under a sign that said, “Bridal Registry,” with no visible keyboard or mouse. When asked why, a salesperson told me that the bridal registry terminal was not for customer use.

Since sluggish revenues forced Service Merchandise to restructure operations and close more than a third of its 348 stores beginning in February 1999, one might think that the company would be happy to provide some lightning-speed, well-maintained terminals in every store to ensure that every possible sales angle has been pursued. In this case, apparently not.

Ignoring the Obvious

That is not to say that efforts to integrate e-commerce with traditional retail are dissipating. Kmart’s next move is to install approximately 3,500 BlueLight.com kiosks into its stores — something that may encourage middle America to embrace e-commerce after all.

On the other hand, it will take some skill and foresight to integrate e-commerce with traditional retail. For example, does anyone believe I am going to enter my credit card number while standing in a line of a dozen Kmart shoppers? Not likely. Hopefully, the new kiosks will occupy spaces in the stores that are prominent enough to attract attention, but private enough to encourage customer use.

Humans Helping Humans

However, don’t assume that the problem is only in the stores. While shopping at Saks.com during the holidays, I decided to check to see if Saks sells the Palm IIIc that I needed to purchase.

Unable to find it, I decided to use Saks.com’s “Live Help,” a pop up window that offers a real live person to answer questions. When asked if Saks carried the item, my new best friend Josh told me, “Unfortunately, not online.”

When asked if the item was available in the stores, my buddy said, “Unfortunately, I don’t know.”

It was a Sunday, and when I asked if he could find out for me, Josh said, “Unfortunately, not until tomorrow, because the stores are closed today.”

It was an unfortunate encounter all the way around, illustrating another frustration e-shoppers must endure as bricks and clicks try to live together. Couldn’t someone at Saks foresee the need for Josh to be able to access an in-store catalog or a comprehensive inventory list? It seems pretty basic to me.

Nurturing the E-Shopper

Of course, not all relationships between offline and online stores have been as dysfunctional as the examples mentioned above. But there are plenty of Odd Couples out there who need to be taught how to be good housemates to each other.

As more obstacles are removed, more shopping will be done. As more shopping is done, more revenues will come in.

So if any e-commerce companies are not ready to make the best of their relationships with offline partners, or vice versa, maybe it’s time for them to get some couples therapy.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

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