ISSUE 543: The high tech office- March
E-commerce proves useful for selling
bricks with clicks
One of the
biggest debates going is the comparison between e-commerce and
traditional "bricks and mortar" outfits -- you know, businesses that
actually have a physical presence somewhere, as opposed to new-style
enterprises that seemingly consist of a computer, a Web page, accounts
with distributors and a big FedEx bill. Some have referred to
it as a battle between brick and click.
It's not very hard to create an on-
line catalogue. Software such as Van-
couver-based Multiactive's ecBuilder makes it easy, and
numerous Web site providers will happily host your site. But many new
converts to e-commerce discovered that there's a lot more to this new
way of doing business. The Web-based catalogue is just the start.
Would-be 21st century businesses need
to be able to easily compare an order with what's in stock and inform
online customers when they can expect delivery. They should be able to
easily process the order and get it out to the customer, while sending
the proper information to accounting and other departments. Then there
are the issues relating to customer service, dealing with the
inevitable returns, and more. Last Christmas, it seemed that there were
far too many businesses looking good on the Web without having built
the infrastructure to be able to follow through on their e-promises.
According to Ron Reed,
Vancouver-based Western Canada director for J.D. Edwards, his
sense is that neither his company's nor his competitors' Canadian
clients have all the pieces in place yet. Instead, he suggested I look
south of the border to a company dealing with, of all things, bricks.
Robinson Brick (www.robinsonbrick.com)
is a Denver-based company that promises "The Right Brick in the Right
Place at the Right Time." Online, it offers potential customers a
choice of more than 100 different styles of bricks in a variety of
colours. That's nothing original, however. Lots of businesses are
offering to sell all sorts of products online. But Robinson has
successfully tied online ordering to its production process. Your order
is immediately sent to production.
Customers can track the status of their
orders at any time to see if their bricks have been produced or if
they've been shipped. Robinson expects that by next year about 50 per
cent of its sales will be generated online. And the company estimates
that tying together its orders with its supply chain will save 50 per
cent of inventory costs.
Robinson Brick is worth mentioning for
another reason. E-commerce Web sites aimed at consumers get the most
attention. Think of online booksellers such as Amazon.com. Few
bricks are sold directly to consumers, however. In fact, despite all
the hype, the biggest growth of online sales is among companies selling
business-to-business, such as Robinson, whose customers are in the
If you visit Robinson's Web site,
you'll find a page on "Why build with brick" or a chance to view
brick's "rainbow of colors." You have the opportunity to look at walls
made of different styles of brick close up (very attractive, I might
add!). What you won't get is a chance to buy a brick. (A good thing --
I'd pity the poor courier driver asked to drop off a tonne of bricks at
my door.) Instead, there's
a link for Partners Only --
a page requiring a log-
in name and password for Robinson's established customers.
While Robinson has apparently done a
good job integrating its online and physical businesses, it's clear
that an online presence will not replace its physical presence. You
can't construct a building with digital bricks, after all. And the
company's Web site also helps steer potential customers to its actual
location, and includes names, titles, phone numbers and e-mail
addresses for key employees from sales to distribution.
So it's not a case of having to choose
between brick or click. The Robinson example suggests that most
businesses will need both and that the clicks need to be tightly
integrated with the bricks to make the process work both for the
company and the customer.
Even when the product is, literally,