How/When will shopping on the Internet take off?

No one really knows what it will take for Internet shopping to take off - but that doesn't stop anyone from guessing! Some companies cite transaction security as the chief obstacle but Peter Heymann, CEO of InterMind Corporation says that the real issue is now to provide a “rich shopping experience”.

While security of credit card purchases is essential to successful on-line transactions, they are not the ultimate determining factor. "Will consumers buy, once they know their transaction is secure?" asks Heymann. "Hardly. On-line merchants have to deliver much more."

InterMind conducted a seminar at Internet World Spring '95 entitled "Buying and Selling on the Web" that dealt with both transaction security and the quality of the buying experience. Speakers from companies such as Netscape Communications showed that secure transactions are within reach today. "But mechanisms are one thing; competing with shopping downtown (the American term for the High Street, at the mall, or via catalogues is another. Consumers must find value and an enjoyable shopping experience before they will buy."

The competition is traditional "physical" or mail-order shopping. On-line shopping must offer prospective customers more credible, more complete, and more up-to-date accurate information than available otherwise. And still shoppers will choose their familiar shopping haunts over on-line opportunities unless a positive social context for transactions and a pleasant shopping experience can be provided. If Internet vendors deliver a confusing or unresponsive customer interface or dispenses incomplete or misleading information, the shopper will take their business elsewhere.

Then there is the problem of fulfilling the order once it is placed. With its global reach, suppliers will not only have to contend with customers from one end of the country to the other but also potentially from every quarter of the globe. You can get your hands on the goods instantly down at the shops - Internet merchandise had better be available for next day delivery if vendors hope to compete. Of course, software and information vendors can actually deliver the goods over the next. So too can service providers such as software support or even training.

"Virtual shopping" will pose some problems for traditional distribution structures. On-line buying's low order overhead will enable manufacturers to reach beyond distributors and retailers and develop direct relationships with customers. This can be good for vendors because it gives direct information about consumers’ wants and desires but it does have the effect of cutting out the distributors and retailer further down the chain.

InterMind's Heymann offers a checklist of features that on-line vendors need to deliver on their Internet-based shopping sites:

Complete Product Information:

This includes images, detailed performance specifications, and user testimonials.

Evaluation Mechanisms:

Methods for consumers to evaluate products before they buy. A trial period with option to buy is one approach.

Product Warranty:

The on-line vendor should provide a complete and verifiable warranty on products and services and access to repair facilities on a global basis, if indicated.

Access to Existing Customers:

Vendors of products and services can set up forums in which current and potential customers can ask questions and share insights and experiences.

Responsive Customer Service:

Vendors must provide quick resolution to problems, status updates, product information, and technical support using email.

Customer Feedback Mechanism:

Customers should be able to reach the manufacturer or service provider directly to register suggestions, comments or complaints using email. Vendors will have to be geared up to provide fast response.

Attention to Legal and Ethical Issues:

These include accurate representation of products, proper handling of legal issues such as export licensing, observed regulations for sales to minors, appropriate handling of both cash and credit purchases, and especially respect for the privacy of customer transaction information.

A final point to note: Internet shop keepers need to put their store board out from a high-bandwidth, reliable site.