Gabriel's trumpet

Let the events of this past holiday season mark the end of time for inferior systems integration

IN THE EARLY fourth quarter of last year, I used this space to predict an improved online shopping climate for the 2001 holiday season and recommended ways to get your IT resources primed for the job (see " Fighting the Grinch ").

The response was icy as many of you, some quite vehemently, wrote to tell me that I was out of my mind.

Naturally, you brought my attention to a market with many factors in flux, from recessionary consumer spending habits ("I don't think people are going to be any more willing to part with their cash this year just because you give them a novel way to shop") to threats of biological terrorism ("No one's going to risk making a purchase over the Internet with a chance of contamination on delivery").

I admit that hopes for profitability may have seemed doomed from the outset. I actually paused to consider whether I had overestimated the evolution of Web-based sales channels.

But the proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and this year's numbers indicate impressive growth for online b-to-c spending compared to relatively anemic in-store counterparts.

Yahoo reported record sales volume with an 86percent increase over last year. Microsoft's MSN rallied to 106 percent sales gains. Although these major shopping portals may represent extremes, even comScore Networks, akin to the Nielsen ratings company for online consumer activity, reported upwards of 15 percent growth in across-the-board online spending.

Still, judging from my own firsthand experiences, many retailers continue to treat Web channels as a novelty. Rather than properly integrating their Web systems in existing processes, these companies treat such systems as slapdashed add-ons.

For example, my attempt to purchase a truck air horn as a gift (don't ask ... ) from a major auto parts accessories distributor revealed frustrating disconnects between online and traditional ordering systems, shoddy content management that incorrectly linked SKUs (stock keeping units) and item details, and a customer service department that flew blind without real-time access to customer data.

Despite these exceptions, the stellar performance of the commercial Web is offering a guiding light that all wise men and women should be able to follow. Let the online sales figures from this holiday season serve as a clarion call. Take the steps necessary to improve site logic and back-end integration to tap the growth potential in b-to-c sell-side systems.

Frankly, I think you're out of your mind not to.

What insight have you gleaned from your online sales channels this past holiday season? Where are you aiming to improve? Where are my air horns? Write to me at james_borck@infoworld.com and let me know.

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