Live from Annual Summit: The promise of broadband

New York—The future direction of e-commerce depends largely on the future adaption of broadband technology. That was the consensus of the panelists at the session entitled The Future of Retailing Online during the Annual Summit here.

Currently only 10 million-11 million homes in the U.S. have broadband Internet access, according to Kate Delhagen, retail research director for Forrester Research and the panel moderator. Broadband access includes cable modems and other high-speed connections, as opposed to the slower dial-up connections that are now the norm.

Of the nation’s 100 million households, 36 million are shopping online. Within five years, Delhagen estimated, about 25% of homes would have broadband Web access.

“Broadband is going to change the way small business works and what customers will demand,” said panelist Monica Luechtefeld, executive vice president, e-commerce of office supplies giant Office Depot. “I think content is going to be the key win.” For instance, Office Depot would be able to show on its Website streaming video versions of the in-store classes on writing proposals and other topics that it conducts for small-business owners. The company could also use streaming video to demonstrate the whys and hows of more complex products.

Another panelist, eBay vice president of consumer products Lorna Borenstein, enthused about the ability to use three-dimensional product depictions and other bandwidth-intensive tools on the auction site. “We’ll be able to sell so much more with the proliferation of broadband technology,” she predicted. “It will really be a personalized experience: ‘Here, Lorna, is a pair of pants that will go with what you bought last month.’”

In the meantime though, eBay is actually simplifying its site and removing some of the bells and whistles that slowed load times for those using dial-up connections. The company will “turn them back on” once broadband penetration increases, Borenstein said.

But general merchandiser, a division of the home shopping TV network, has already implemented some broadband applications, such as video, said vice president of operations Steve Hamlin. Going forward, has more broadband initiatives planned, many of which will enable the company to repurpose footage from its television programming. “I see all sorts of opportunities such as video on command, where you can request a product demonstration,” Hamlin said.

But even as broadband access increases, a significant number of users will still retain dial-up access, pointed out Cathy David, vice president of store-brand Websites for Target Corp. The trick, both now and in the future, is to “make sure that people have the same online experience regardless of their technology,” she said.

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