An E-Commerce Survival Plan

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This column was written by Evan Schuman, the editor of, a site that tracks retail technology, e-commerce and security issues. Retail Realities will appear each Friday. Evan can be reached at e-mail and on Twitter.

A reader was visiting recently because she was about to run out of printer paper and knew she had to drive by a Wal-Mart that afternoon. Her mission was simple: She wasn't especially picky about which plain printer paper, but she just wanted to make sure it was in stock at her local store.

She hit and found tons of different printer paper, all of which looked quite acceptable. But she tried one or two and searched if it was in-stock at her store. Nope. She simply wanted to ask the site, "Limiting your answer to this one store, what printer paper does it have in stock?" If she was only interested in one very specific brand and paper type, she could have searched that store. The generic searches made so easy on the site, though, wouldn't work when focused on one store.

Why? The inventory data is clearly all there. Another reader asked why the site didn't leverage its purchase history data and flag to her that, according to their records, her toner is 15 months old and that she might want to consider replacing it now, as it likely only has a few weeks of life left, assuming her usage is standard.

During this time of economic sadness, chains need to squeeze every dollar out of their channels as much as possible. So why should merchants leave money on the mousepad? A few retailers have tried getting creative recently--with mixed results. Consider a recent Papa Johns' Web campaign that leverages a PC's webcam and has it interacting with the pizza box? (That's great, but I'll be a lot more impressed if you just get the order right and deliver it on time.) Or a Lands' End mini-Web site that allows consumers to dress their own swimsuit models, but only if they have a very limited imagination of perhaps a handful of swimsuits.

For your amusement, we offer here a random offering of retail suggestions to make themselves a bit more relevant and profitable:

Ship To Store

Typically, sites offer consumers two choices: either pickup in store right away; or pay shipping and have to wait days or weeks to receive the merchandise. Why not offer ship-to-store, at a rate slightly higher than grabbing merchandise that is already there but at a rate much less than paying for shipping to the consumer's home? It's less convenient than home delivery and that should come with a discount. For the chain, it's a way to lower costs to the consumer who is willing to wait, especially when your internal supply chain can be a lot cheaper than FedEx.

Volume Discount For Associated Items

Many sites offer straight volume discounts, but how about mimicking what good physical salesfolk do in-store and offer ultra-deep discounts for associated items. Buy a camera and get those deep discounts on a tripod, spare battery, upgraded lense and memory cards. Perhaps show them a list of options and promise a deep discount if they put a package together of more than a certain amount.

In-Store Discounts For In-Store Pickups

One of the retail benefits of getting a customer to order online and pickup in-store is the upsell potential. Or forget upsell. The basic sell, where the customer, while there, is likely to purchase some other items.

But whenever I have done in-store pickup, no attempt is made whatsoever to lure me into the rest of the store. I go right into customer service and am conveniently situated to the exit afterwards. That's fine for the consumer, but the retailer could at least try. With that in mind, why not offer an in-store coupon good only at the time of in-store pickup. Make it deep enough to be persuasive. As long as they're there, they might as well look around to see if they can use the coupon. If you want them to stick around, give 'em a reason.

Consider a recent Papa Johns' Web campaign that leverages a PC's webcam and has it interacting with the pizza box? That's great, but I'll be a lot more impressed if you just get the order right and deliver it on time.

Linked

Why not have an application that scans the cart, compares it with prior purchases (and anything else the system knows about that customer) and looks for disconnects? Envision a dialogue box that might say, "By any chance, is this item in your cart related to something else in your cart or something you've bought from us recently?" If they say "yes," offer a pulldown of those items for both.

The system could then flag that they're buying the wrong ink for that printer, the wrong USB cord for that laptop or even a food that should be flagged. "You've previously said your daughter has a severe nut allergy. That product was made in a factory that also processes tree nuts."

This could have quite a few uses for apparel, allowing them to pull down a list of frequent gift recipients. "According to the information you provided three months ago, that blouse is the wrong size for Aunt Agnes" or "According to the information in our gift registry, the intended recipient of that outfit hates purple. That outfit has a permanent purple bow."

This also gives the consumer an incentive to volunteer more personal information to facilitate future flags. Win win.

By Evan Schuman
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