I’m an ecommerce junkie not only as a customer, but as a seller. I seem to buy everything I can online, from boxer shorts to peanut butter. Yes siree, I am that online shopaholic who even buys his medicines via the Web (although the pharmacy is right across the street from my home!) Thankfully, I’ve been able to turn some of my weaknesses as an ecommerce junkie to our customers’ benefit by learning first-hand what customers look for in an ecommerce experience.
Mixing some of what we have learned online with the efforts from our fantastic team of peers who formulate our company’s ecommerce strategy, we have created a rewarding experience for thousands of customers who support our ecommerce platform. We feel ecommerce will continue to play a significant part of our growth strategy; thus, we must continue to improve our customers’ experience when they buy from us online.
How much of our industry’s business will eventually move to an ecommerce platform? According to some tech visionaries, perhaps all of it will soon be virtual. Marc Andreessen, venture capitalist extraordinaire and creator of the first Web browser, predicted earlier this year the advance of the “absolute death of retail.”
Andreessen feels ecommerce is about to grow exponentially in a significant uptick he nicknamed “ecommerce 2.0.” His vision is grounded in his belief that retailers will soon disappear, and consumers will have no choice but to buy online. Retail stores will become more like showrooms than prettied-up warehouses. Rising real estate costs, margin compression and tied-up capital in goods waiting to be sold are insurmountable obstacles that many retailers will not survive once they’ve lost their critical-mass customers to online marketplaces (remember Circuit City?)
As an auto parts business owner, I’m not sure Andreessen’s views will play out in our industry as they are scripted in his head. We are in the business of accumulating parts near the end-user, and you need tons of bricks and mortar to accomplish that. However, as a consumer, there is one aspect of his vision that resonates with me like non-stop conga drums in my ears: inventory at brick and mortar stores oftentimes does not match with what consumers need.
Every once in awhile, I do abandon my computer and venture to a mall to go shopping. Almost every time I do this, I can’t quite find what I am looking for; they just don’t have the right size, the right color, the right brand or the best price. The only thing the store can provide me with is immediate availability. Granted, sometimes I just need a shirt right then and there, so I succumb. Still, the experience of visiting the store is dismal, as I spend time and effort searching for what I need, with little help from the staff, to mostly compromise on my choice in the end.
What about the experience of visiting an auto parts retail store? While I do visit many auto parts stores, I’m not usually a customer. But I do keep a keen eye on how customers act while at the stores. One thing I see again and again is customers searching for what they need, with a level of frustration similar to what I feel when I go looking for a shirt at the mall. They just can’t find the right part, the right fit, the right brand, the right price. This is especially true of replacement parts that are stocked in front of the parts counter, on the stores’ shelves and where the customers have to do their own lookup; oftentimes they have to compromise as well. Stores can clearly mitigate this with more personnel readily available to look up parts for visiting customers and by adding more and more inventory. However, we all know this is so expensive most retailers have to find a balance that more times than not supports the bottom line and not the customers’ experience.
For consumers, there is a tectonic fissure between the ability to search for products easily online and the roll-of-the-dice experience of visiting a store hoping to find exactly what you need. The more rewarding the online experience, the harder it will be for stores to remain open. On that, I agree.
Mandy Aguilar is a regional vice president for Jacksonville, Fla.-based The Parts House.
Visit Mandy’s blog: www.mandyaguilar.com.