The E-tail Confidence Crisis

I once hoped — without any good reason, really — that the world of online retail would somehow distinguish itself in one small but significant way: I hoped it would obey the calendar. The Roman calendar. The one that has been completely folded, spindled, mutilated and ignored by real-world retailers.

Retailers who think that back-to-school shopping should begin sometime before the Fourth of July. Retailers who feel that consumers are just plain dumb for thinking they can get all their Christmas shopping done between Thanksgiving and December 25th, and therefore need the helping hand of end-of-year discounts that come before Halloween.

The Four Seasons

Is it any wonder people get depressed at Christmas? After months of relentless marketing assaults, consumers might be just as happy to giftwrap and ship themselves off to Survivor Island.

With its point and click and all-hours ease, online shopping could and should help re-compress the calendar, push the months back into their proper order and save us from weeks upon weeks of unnecessary promotion. No such luck.

In fact, e-tailers want to go in the opposite direction. Skittish from the high-profile stumbles during the 1999 holiday shopping season — underscored by the recent fines that many retailers paid for failing to deliver products on time — they already have their longer shopping season plans waiting in the wings.

Early Offenders

Admittedly, it makes excellent business sense for a company to spread its sales out over longer periods. Less temporary help has to be hired, and the stress on delivery systems and suppliers that caused things to go bump last year could largely be avoided.

Longer shopping seasons also minimize the need for the last-minute or post-holiday discounts that many retailers resort to in order to clear shelves for spring merchandise. Of course, that merchandise hits shelves when winter is barely two weeks old.

Catalog retailers, the closest cousins to online sellers, have always been the first to bring holiday greetings into households. And this year, considering the shaky state of many e-tailers, stepping on a late-season landmine could blow up the whole operation.

But there is such a thing as too early. Museumshop.com recently mailed promotions urging customers to shop early, suggesting that “Christmas in July… or August” makes perfect sense. Catalog and online fashion retailer Lillian Vernon will decorate its Web site for the holidays in late September. By comparison, Ashford.com has an almost tardy approach, telling one newspaper it will be ready to go by November 1st.

Backlash?

Rest assured, I’m not the only one whose stomach is turned by retailers who talk of the holiday season when there are still (green) leaves on the trees. A survey by Maritz Marketing Research, Inc. found that 62 percent of shoppers are “annoyed” by the early appearance of seasonal merchandise.

But while having to hear Christmas carols for four months is aggravating, what bothers people most is the sense that retailers are trying to manipulate shoppers. Shop early for best selection, the saying goes, even though experienced buyers know the corollary to that manifesto: shop late for the best price. Bargains start to arrive right about crunch time.

And the Web is no different in that regard. In fact, the industry-wide push to extend the shopping season, while admirable for all the reasons noted above, seems like something of a cop-out — as if e-tailers would rather not find out if they can process a massive crunch of orders in the three weeks before the holidays.

The bottom line is that no amount of clever marketing or seasonal finagling is going to relieve all the pressure on that last-minute time frame.

Are You Ready?

E-tailers should display some confidence in their own abilities and in the intelligence of their customers. Every come-on to shop early should include the promise that online stores are ready, willing, and able to handle late, even last-minute shoppers. Or at least that they’ll do their level best.

After all, if e-tailers can’t handle the job, everyone knows a store right down the street that can. And that store will be easy to find, because by the time most of us really start our holiday shopping, the decorations will have been up for three months.

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