Earlier this week, I had an experience that got me thinking about where and how people buy. I've come to the conclusion that buyers in all walks of life put up with things online that we would never tolerate in a retail store.
I received a "personal" email from a leading printer manufacturer telling me it was time to replace my ink cartridges. The vendor was right: I've been getting "low on ink" alerts for several weeks now. The retailer where I usually pick this stuff up hasn't been on my errand route this week, so I figured I'd order ink online. After all, this company is smart enough to know my ink is low, so ordering it will be a snap.
I've ordered from this site before, so they must already know what I need. I like that: One of my fatal flaws is numbers, and, although I can remember weird little facts such as ingesting silver nitrite will turn your skin blue, I couldn't tell you what make or model my printer is unless I'm looking at it. This company was making my life easier by allowing me to skip that step.
Wrong. I got routed to this company's home page. It asked me my printer make and model. If I didn't know, I could search a list of 100 or so options. Once I got to the right option, I had to register and create an account. (I'd already done this.) Only then did the site give me a list of cartridges, with another dozen or so choices. I could buy black only; magenta only; yellow only; or blue only. I could buy black and colors together in a standard package; I could buy double the black ink in a package with the standard quantity of colors; or I could buy double the black ink and double the colored inks separately. By this time I was so annoyed that I closed the site and vowed to go to Staples.
I understand this vendor is a business and its goal is to sell as much stuff as possible. I understand it is losing money on its hardware and makes its profit off of cartridge sales. I understand it is a competitive environment out there and it wants my business. I also understand that, ultimately, I'll end up buying its cartridges either way because this is the only vendor that sells them. But I am not going to buy them from this vendor's Website.
Why? First, they gave me the false impression that they knew me: "Barbara, it's time to replace your ink." If this company is smart enough to track my ink purchases, they must be smart enough to know what printer I use and what I ordered last time. They didn't.
Second, they interrupted the buying process by making me stop and register. I already have at least a dozen user names and passwords registered on online shopping sites. I wasn't in the mood to create another user name and be told my password must have more than eight characters; a capital letter; at least one numeral; no repeating characters; and that a user has already been registered under that name.
That was me, by the way.
I recall something an electronics catalogue distributor told me a couple of years ago about its business model. It didn't participate in an industry practice called "design-wins," in which a distributor is rewarded for getting a component designed onto a circuit board. That process requires customers to register and share a lot of information, and then follows up to see if the end-product is being built. The president of this company told me they do not want to create any barriers between them and their customers. This is a particularly gutsy call because suppliers really like design-win information; yet, this company says "no thanks." And guess what? It's the leading catalogue distributor in the industry.
If I had gone to Staples in the first place, I'd still have to know my printer's make and model. But I wouldn't need a password to enter the store; I wouldn't get asked a dozen different questions before I even walked in the door; and my choices would be laid out for me in a single space. Even though I still have to hop in the car, it's easier than shopping online.
Purchasers of electronics components face the same situation every day with a lot more complexity. Some of their relationships are automated: When they are out of something the system triggers a purchase order. But more often than not, they have to hunt something down. The Internet has become a great tool for comparison shopping, but it has a ways to go when it comes to purchasing. If it's easier to hop into a car than to buy online, your suppliers are doing something wrong.