Corporate Website Benefits and the Future
When people surf the Web they benefit from the efficiency of the electronic capabilities of the Internet. Where it would be time consuming to find contact details and information about companies or organisations through traditional means such as directory searching, the websites provide lists of contacts that can be accessed instantly via their hyperlinks. The Environment agency publishes a complete list of its local offices on its website and includes links to a host of useful organisations of a similar nature including the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR), the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) and the Department of Health to name but three.
Access to the WWW is available 24 hours a day and is one of the most significant reasons for the change in relations between customer and organisation. Shoppers visiting the virtual store of Tesco are able to place orders for groceries in the middle of the night if they so wish. Many people may find it more convenient to browse the Web late at night as browsing in the small hours doesn't intrude on their busy schedules. Nicholas Negroponte in his 1996 book: Being Digital summed up the shift in attitude with the phrase, "prime time is my time". In an age where the customer is king, companies and organisations must provide their services at a time that is convenient to the consumer.
Saunders (2001 a) cites the findings of a report by The Atlas Institute, which showed that, "online shopping activity peaked during working hours, at around 1:00pm". It also highlighted a difference in purchasing habits between online and offline consumers. It found that "Web shoppers are most active during the weekdays, while offline shoppers do more shopping on Saturdays." This may be linked to the fact that shopping in the traditional sense has become a social activity and is thus reserved for the weekend when the majority of people take a break from work, whereas shopping online is usually confined to the actions of a single individual and as revealed by the GartnerG2 findings, is carried out primarily because of its convenience.
It is also interesting to read the projections of a revised study conducted by Vividence on this year's Christmas shopping habits of Americans following the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. It found that overall spending would decrease this year as a result of concerns about the US economy but also found "customers plan to shop more online in the wake of the attack, with 29 per cent saying they were concerned about safety in the stores" (Pastore, 2001 b).
Internet companies benefit greatly from the fact that their services are accessible when their physical premises are closed. The advantages of virtual shopping are evident for both customer and organisation. Customers are able to browse at leisure from the comfort of their own home and may be able to make more rational choices regarding the purchasing of goods. It could be argued there is less chance of impulse buying from the virtual store, as browsing on the Web enables prices to be considered more rationally for example. The ability to shop from home is a great benefit for disabled people who may find it physically difficult to shop in the traditional fashion.
The company benefits from reduced operating costs such as rent, rates and labour and are thus able to pass these savings on to the consumer. For example Tesco have been known to sell computers in their stores at a certain price and have offered for sale identical computers on their website at the same price but which come bundled with a free printer. "Lower prices and the ability to compare products and item cost" are the reasons why 39 per cent of Americans are shopping online the week ending November 17, 2001 (Pastore, 2001, b).
Moreover, as companies like Tesco benefit from reduced operating costs when operating their business online, it means the need for staff could be reduced. Software is starting to replace employees. There is a shift in the type of jobs that are available. The rise of online banking and the increase in the number of ATM machines resulted in a reduction in the number of human tellers in banks and similarly, retailers will see a shift in working roles as the growth of online shopping requires fewer workers on the shop floor.
Because of the anonymity of the Internet, surfers are treated in the same way regardless of appearance, age, gender or nationality - or they should be. However, this can change when website owners begin to charge for their online services. It is worth noting that access to the websites of both the Environment Agency and Tesco are completely free of charge. The very nature of the Environment Agency's site means it must be free.
Some sites augment revenue streams by charging subscription fees to view the content of their pages. Schwartz, (1997) on the subject of paid-subscription, stated how, "in terms of forging a relationship between the content creator and the consumer, the paid visitors clearly should be top priority." A significant amount of useful information can be collected from paid-subscribers but in turn these subscribers "are coming to expect rewards for disclosing information about themselves". He states how such subscribers not only supply a revenue stream for companies but also "provide key information" on the "type" of customer that is using a companies website. "Forging an ongoing relationship with each of these loyal customers is what doing business on the Web is all about."
Consumers are however, reluctant to disclose information about themselves. Saunders (2001, b) states, "Trust - or the lack of it - is emerging as one of the critical roadblocks to success in e-commerce." He goes on to explain how consumers expect their identities and personal information to be secure but regrettably reveals that this "coupled with fear of online fraud, is what stops many consumers from even considering digital transactions".
There is no doubt that corporate, government and society websites are changing the relationships between themselves and their customers. It's no longer a question of whether e-commerce will alter the shopping habits of consumers but rather, to what extent. Large sites such as Tesco have become multi-functional, offering such services as career opportunities and banking as well as traditional grocery shopping. Websites such as the Environment Agency's are encouraging two-way relationships between customer and organisation, allowing greater feedback, input and interaction, a wealth of information and links to further sources of information and advice that is helping to inform and educate its readership.
The electronic capabilities of sophisticated e-commerce sites such as Tesco's are taking shopping to a new dimension. Browsers can surf the depths of cyberspace searching for information, conduct online conversations, interact with unique site features and purchase goods and services whilst oblivious to all sense of time and space if they so wish but as shown by the CI reports, e-commerce has a long way to go before it fulfils its potential. Companies need to take greater care with sensitive customer data if they are to gain customer trust and retain loyalty. It can be seen however, that websites are helping to improve relations in many ways and website owners as well as website users must surely be optimistic about the future.