Driving Lessons

Broadband Web access as the savior of direct marketing? That seemed to be the sentiment among panelists at a session entitled The Future of Retailing Online during September’s Shop.org Annual Summit in New York.

Currently only 10% of U.S. households have broadband access, which includes cable modems and T-1 lines. The remainder of wired households rely on slower dial-up connections. But within five years, according to Forrester Research, about 25% of all homes will have broadband access — and boy, were the panelists excited.

“We’ll be able to sell so much more with the proliferation of broadband technology,” enthused Lorna Borenstein, vice president of consumer products for eBay. Because consumers with speedier Web connections could more readily view streaming video and other fancy applications, companies such as hers will be able to offer “a personalized experience,” she said, something along the lines of “‘Here, Lorna, is a pair of pants that will go with what you bought last month.’”

“I think content is going to be the key win with greater broadband,” added Monica Luechtefeld, Office Depot’s executive vice president, e-commerce. Her company, she said, would be able to show via streaming video the hows and whys of every technical product, as well as offer its in-store training sessions on small-business topics to Web surfers.

It sounds great — in theory. But I’m skeptical about the practical results.

For one thing, while broadband access is faster than dial-up, it ain’t supersonic. My home computer is one of a very few in my area to have cable Web access, so I should be zooming along the Internet highway. Instead I’m chugging away with the speed of a 10-year-old Subaru Justy. Yes, it’s faster than the horse-and-buggy. But I’m not going to be winning the Web equivalent of Le Mans any time soon.

More important, there’s no evidence that the lack of flashy tools is what’s preventing a larger number of consumers from buying online. It still boils down to issues of security, shipping costs, and the inability to see and feel the products before buying — the same issues that have kept catalog penetration stalled at 50%.

Industry leaders, among them DMA head Bob Wientzen, have long stressed the importance of preaching outside the choir, of converting confirmed nonshoppers to the joys of catalogs. But no one has suggested how to do that exactly.

One idea might be to offer prospects free returns. Of course, that could bite into the bottom line, which is probably why wiser folks than I have not made the move.

Another might be to promote catalog shopping as an efficient, even cost-effective means of sending gifts to faraway friends and family this holiday season. Heck, just the thought of not having to waste a half-hour in line at the post office may be enough to persuade shoppers to order by catalog or Web. So why not make that the theme of your promotional e-mails this month?

Just a few years ago, pundits predicted that Internet technology would make print catalogs obsolete. Now they’re saying that improved technology will create additional business. Let’s not forget that technology isn’t the medium or the message, but simply a tool. And if we still don’t know how to best to wield it, it won’t do us much good. A Jaguar is the same as a Justy to a person who doesn’t know how to drive.

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