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E-Business Integration: It Ain't Over Yet

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Posted August 31, 2004 By Chris Pickering     Feedback

The further we get from the high-energy buzz of the early days of e-business, the easier it is to assume that most of what needs to be done has been done. Our Datamation columnist says that just isn't so.

Bellwether e-business REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.) has made a lot of effort to tear down the wall between physical storefronts and the virtual Internet.

Customers who place orders over the Web can choose to have those orders delivered to their homes or to a nearby REI store. And, regardless of where the order was originally delivered, they can return orders to a physical store to avoid the hassle of packing and shipping that is part of most on-line returns.

The value of this increased customer convenience might be hard to quantify, but the value of the add-on sales it generates is not. REI calculates that, on average, customers who pick up orders in-store spend another $32 while they're there. And REI has made it easier for customers to get what they want in the store by providing in-store kiosks that support electronic catalogs and on-line ordering. REI's goal is to give customers a seamless experience where it doesn't matter how they are dealing with REI because REI is one cohesive entity.

Despite its demonstrated success, REI is still looking for more ways to integrate its physical and virtual worlds. For REI, e-business integration is a never-ending process.

Clothing retailer Eddie Bauer is another company that has integrated e-business into its customer experience. Like REI, Eddie Bauer allows customers to return merchandise purchased on the Web to its physical stores, so returns and exchanges are as hassle-free as possible.

Bauer also allows customers to set up "wish lists," through in-store kiosks or over the Web, that can be shared with other customers or used as a tickler for Bauer to notify customers about product availability. (For the record, REI has a similar function.) Bauer benefits from e-business integration and so do its customers.

Bookseller Barnes & Noble, too, has minimized the height of the physical-virtual wall by allowing in-store returns of Web-purchased books and providing kiosks at selected stores. Unlike competitor Border's (which uses Amazon.com as a separate virtual bookstore), Barnes & Noble tries to make it easy for customers to shop where they want and how they want, regardless of whether that's in a physical store, on the Web, or in a kiosk. Integrated e-business gives Barnes & Noble a unified interface that promotes customer satisfaction through customer convenience.

These examples are telling because retailers and booksellers are the archetypal e-businesses, particularly those with a nationwide presence. They are constantly pushing the e-business integration envelope to approach the e-business ideal of "any time, anywhere." Their example and their model give us all something to strive for. The customers get convenience and simplicity. The companies get higher sales and greater returns on existing assets.

If retail and bookselling seem too far removed from your industry, forget the industry and concentrate on the essential business function. Sometimes the possibilities are so obvious they are easy to overlook. For example: How about putting kiosks in the reception area of your headquarters and all your plants so that customers and partners who are waiting for meetings can browse company information? How far you take this depends on how deeply you've integrated e-business with your physical business, but an electronic catalog, order inquiry, and even order entry are not unreasonable possibilities.

How about e-mail as order entry for restaurants? More and more restaurants are offering take-out service these days, even traditional sit-down restaurants like Outback Steakhouse. Many of these restaurants allow customers to fax in their pick-up orders but not many accept e-mail orders. Talk about low-hanging fruit -- how difficult is it to set up a take-out-order e-mail box and route it right to the kitchen? At worst, it's no more difficult that setting up a fax-based system. And any business that needs to have spur-of-the-moment orders ready when customers walk in the door (or drive up to the window) can do it.

Not all manufacturing companies have a need for full-blown supply-chain management, but what about giving customers Web-based ordering or, at least, order tracking? And how about a simple query system for suppliers, so they can anticipate replenishment orders? Or maybe a Web-based chat room where service centers can discuss unusual problems or trade hard-to-find parts with each other?

And what if you're in professional services (medicine, dentistry, consulting, law, etc.): Is there any reason not to integrate your calendar system with a Web-based interface that allows customers to self-schedule? And this applies to any business that depends on appointments such as auto mechanics or hair stylists.

The list could go on, but you get the point.

The further we get from the high-energy buzz of the early days of e-business, the easier it is to assume that most of what needs to be done has been done. But if companies like REI are still finding ways to push the envelope, it's a sure bet that e-business integration ain't over yet -- and most of us should still be looking for ways to use it.

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