Improving the Web Buying Experience

Nov. 1, 2004
Corporate financial analysts have complained for many years about the cost entailed in the processing of just one purchase order.

The number of purchase orders to maintain one medium-sized supply crib will often number in the hundreds. No wonder that both suppliers and customers are looking at electronic commerce as a way to cut costs and improve inventory flow.

“E-commerce makes sense when it simplifies things for the customer,” says Mike Rothwell, director of engineering at Advantech Corp., a Cincinnati-based supplier of automation equipment. “Implemented properly, e-commerce will provide the customer with an easier way to get product information, configure systems, determine availability and execute the purchase transaction. This lets the people in the organizations (suppliers and customers) focus on true value-added activities.”

Russ Slabaugh, e-commerce lead at Cumming, Ga., automation marketer AutomationDirect, says the use of the Web for commerce is already past the pioneer stage. “For an e-commerce Web site to enjoy modern day success, it must offer ‘second-generation’ functionality. Early versions of online stores provided a novel experience to the user by simply offering some product detail, item entry, shopping cart, checkout process and a few bonus features to distinguish the site from the competition.”

Many e-commerce sites failed spectacularly in the big “dot com” bust of a few years ago. To avoid failure, Slabaugh predicts, “The secret to the future of e-commerce success will be to extend the functionality of Web sites to provide old-fashioned service. One major attraction of Web-based purchasing is the flexibility to research and order at the customer’s convenience rather than being confined to traditional business hours. A Web user wants 24/7 access to marketing details, technical support, product selection tools and delivery status, to name a few. Additionally, empowering customers to control account information, such as changing an address, accessing purchase history, monitoring account status and being able to make online payments has become a must.”

Half-pregnant?

Howard Minnick, president of online automation component marketer Automation Systems Interconnect (ASI), says, “Our experience has shown us that you cannot be half-pregnant when it comes to e-commerce. Either you are committed to it and have a means to accomplish the job, or you struggle with how to please several masters. You must be perfectly clear in the message that you are sending to the customer with regard to e-commerce. If the customer goes to your Web site and doubts for a moment that he is going to get better service and pricing dealing direct verses dealing with distribution, you will create confusion and dissatisfaction.”

The best marketers have always known what customers want and need and then find the best way to provide solutions. AutomationDirect’s Slabaugh has this take on customer needs, “They want control of purchases and the online experience. Interactive tools providing personalized information place users in control of their online experiences. A successful e-commerce engineer realizes that not everyone visits a Web site for the same reasons. Management may visit to determine if a particular product is offered, an engineer may visit to view product specifications, while a purchasing agent’s focus is to efficiently submit an order. A Web site must be developed to provide the flexibility and efficiency needed to support many different types of users.”

Similarly, Minnick notes, “the most important issues are ease of navigation, availability of accurate information and ability to complete a transaction easily. When people go to the Internet to find or purchase something, they are dealing in ‘Internet time.’ If the Web site is cumbersome, takes a lot of time or requires a genius to figure it out, you will lose the customer very quickly. An important design step is the ‘three-click rule.’ Within three clicks, the customer must be at the page that provides all of the necessary information to make an informed decision.”

E-commerce tools are rapidly evolving. A well-designed site enhances the experience for both supplier and customer.

Gary Mintchell, [email protected]