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ISSUE 543: The high tech office- March 21 2000


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 ( 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 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 building trades.

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, bricks. *


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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan