Speechless in Stamford

Having been rendered nearly speechless last week due to strep throat, I once again had cause to praise e-commerce. Even though I could talk only in tones audible exclusively to dogs, I managed to book a hotel room in Budapest, shop for assorted birthday gifts, and ferret out the best airfares to Bangor, ME.

In the eight or so years since I made my first online purchase (from Amazon.com, the gateway drug for so many e-commerce addicts), the Web has changed hugely. You can actually make out the products depicted in the photos! You can discover if a product is backordered before you check out! Sometimes you can even complete an entire transaction in less time than it takes to cook a Lean Cuisine in the microwave!

Yet I’m still too often left dumbfounded by how many i.merchants get the basics wrong, proving that common sense isn’t all that common. A site that requires the visitor to have Flash before he can even enter, for instance, is pretty much shutting the door on users with versions of Netscape 6.2 or earlier, Explorer 4.x or earlier, or Mac OS X. Build a site that’s so graphics-intensive it takes more than a few seconds to load, and you’re all but telling shoppers to visit the competition. Neglect to update your home page — touting Father’s Day specials in late June, perhaps — and you leave visitors wondering if your warehouse staff is as lackadaisical as your marketing department, or if you’re even still in business.

Happily for shoppers, more and more online marketers are getting things right. We honor a number of them in our coverage of the Fifth Annual I.Merchant Awards this issue, beginning on page 26. The 10 Gold and Silver Award winners profiled offer great service, merchandise, copy, and creative, of course. But most important, they’re easy to shop from. After all, if the prospective customer can’t find the product, he’s not going to be able to buy it.

Now that my system is loaded with amoxicillin, I can once again shop by phone and even venture into stores. But really, why should I? For the past eight years I’ve for the most part managed not to. And thanks to companies like the I.Merchant Award winners, shopping silently is becoming easier and easier. Now I can save my voice for more important things, like singing tunelessly while driving and hectoring certain staff writers for overdue copy.