Economist’s eCommerce Survey

The Economist writes:

E+-commerce is already very big, and it is going to get much bigger. But the actual value of transactions currently concluded online is dwarfed by the extraordinary influence the internet is exerting over purchases carried out in the offline world. That influence is becoming an integral part of e-commerce.

To start with, the internet is profoundly changing consumer behaviour. One in five customers walking into a Sears department store in America to buy an electrical appliance will have researched their purchase onlineand most will know down to a dime what they intend to pay. More surprisingly, three out of four Americans start shopping for new cars online, even though most end up buying them from traditional dealers. The difference is that these customers come to the showroom armed with information about the car and the best available deals. Sometimes they even have computer print-outs identifying the particular vehicle from the dealer’s stock that they want to buy.

A company that neglects its website may be committing commercial suicide. A website is increasingly becoming the gateway to a company’s brand, products and serviceseven if the firm does not sell online. A useless website suggests a useless company, and a rival is only a mouse-click away. But even the coolest website will be lost in cyberspace if people cannot find it, so companies have to ensure that they appear high up in internet search results.

For many users, a search site is now their point of entry to the internet. The best-known search engine has already entered the lexicon: people say they have Googled a company, a product or their plumber. The search business has also developed one of the most effective forms of advertising on the internet. And it is already the best way to reach some consumers: teenagers and young men spend more time online than watching television. All this means that search is turning into the internet’s next big battleground as Google defends itself against challenges from Yahoo! and Microsoft.

The other way to get noticed online is to offer goods and services through one of the big sites that already get a lot of traffic. Ebay, Yahoo! and Amazon are becoming huge trading platforms for other companies. But to take part, a company’s products have to stand up to intense price competition. People check online prices, compare them with those in their local high street and may well take a peek at what customers in other countries are paying. Even if websites are prevented from shipping their goods abroad, there are plenty of web-based entrepreneurs ready to oblige.

What is going on here is arbitrage between different sales channels, says Mohanbir Sawhney, professor of technology at the Kellogg School of Management in Chicago. For instance, someone might use the internet to research digital cameras, but visit a photographic shop for a hands-on demonstration. I’ll think about it, they will tell the sales assistant. Back home, they will use a search engine to find the lowest price and buy online. In this way, consumers are deconstructing the purchasing process, says Professor Sawhney. They are unbundling product information from the transaction itself.

One of the biggest commercial advantages of the internet is a lowering of transaction costs, which usually translates directly into lower prices for the consumer. So, if the lowest prices can be found on the internet and people like the service they get, why would they buy anywhere else?

One reason may be convenience; another, concern about fraud, which poses the biggest threat to online trade. But as long as the internet continues to deliver price and product information quickly, cheaply and securely, e-commerce will continue to grow. Increasingly, companies will have to assume that customers will know exactly where to look for the best buy. This market has the potential to become as perfect as it gets.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.