Sex, Lies, and Wrestling Matches

Those of you who frequent eBay know that the relics of dead dot-coms have become hot sellers. Dealers pay tidy sums for defunct stock certificates, signs, T-shirts, hats, sunglasses, and other memorabilia of the Zillionaire Economy.

In hindsight, you could have seen it coming — the Internet as kitsch. It can’t be coincidence that only weeks before the press pounced on the dot-com collectibles story, word came out that Internet adoption by U.S. consumers is slowing to a crawl. Analysts drew parallels with television usage. It took roughly eight years for TV to achieve 63% penetration among the U.S. population; the Internet has accomplished 57% since 1994, when it officially made its debut. But here’s the rub: After 1955, television took 30 years to reach its current 98% penetration among U.S. households. Given a stagnant market for PC sales, high online access costs, and technology too sophisticated for the average user, it’s easy to figure out what will happen to the Internet if you apply the TV model.

But far more pertinent, and amusing, is another trend. An elite medium at first, television went mass with a vengeance, a pattern that the Internet has followed. At the same time that affluent, educated consumers are dumping the Web, blue-collar workers are adopting it at twice its overall growth rate, Neilsen//Net Ratings tells us.

The weird thing is, several years ago, even as Jeff Bezos wannabes sprouted like weeds all over the e-commerce landscape, a small but insistent minority was predicting just that. Back in 1999, in his book High Tech Heretic, computer contrarian and social critic Clifford Stoll compared Internet fare to that of McDonald’s: plentiful, cheap, and of dubious quality. And three years ago, in a low-key session at an otherwise much-hyped e-business conference, Matt Cutler, a co-founder of consulting firm NetGenesis, unveiled research showing that Net visitors viewed wrestling and porn sites most often.

How will retailers — and logistics managers — deal with the new, down-market Internet? What would happen, say, if a company yanked its upscale goods off the Web, kept them available in brick-and-mortar stores only, and made its site the exclusive repository of schlock? Would fulfillment operations revamp their picking and packing procedures (for example, stock up on plain brown wrappers)? In his answer to the question of whether pure-play online businesses will survive (see this month’s “Talking Heads,” page 78), consultant Mark DeChambeau says that only a major new thing will resurrect e-commerce. Maybe, just maybe, kitsch is it.

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