Artemy Lebedev

§ 60. Ehh…commerce

September 24, 2000



…I saw near a corner of Broadway and Twenty-ninth Street, a little flaxen-haired man with a face like a scaly-bark hickory-nut, selling to a fast-gathering crowd a tool that omnigeneously proclaimed itself a can-opener, a screw-driver, a button-hook, a nail-file, a shoe-horn, a watch-guard, a potato-peeler; and an ornament to any gentleman’s key-ring.

O. Henry. Rolling Stones


There is no such thing as electronic commerce, guys. You’ve been duped. You’ve been sold a pup exactly the way you were misled about the Y2K bug. Neither ever existed and won’t.



The mere term “electronic commerce” is fraught with upbeat marketing-inflicted idiocy. A visit to a grocery store and buying a loaf are hardly ever touted as “commerce accomplished by virtue of a cash register”.



Hordes of people in this country and scores of folks overseas are toiling away and breeding pups from sunrise till sunset, all to please dog enthusiasts—Come one in, dumbo doggy lover, look what we’ve got for you in here—lots of puppies to sell!



Investors are spooked and mesmerized by buzzwords that sound like African tribe names: betobe and betosee. Investor is perfectly happy with this self-deception, too, his reasoning being: a man is going to a grocery store to buy a loaf—that’s B-to-C; a bread truck is pulling up in front of a shop—that’s B-to-B; a babushka is peddling cookies on the sidewalk—that’s definitely C-to-C… You may go on like that, just swap the letters time and again. Plain as dirt, sounds marvelous, though.



There’s another way: prefixing a letter with a hyphen to every word: “E-”. A small one will do fine, too: “e-”. E-every e-businessman e-with e-self-respect e-will e-swallow e-it e-hook, e-line e-and e-sinker.






So, what is my problem? What is the point of this e-xample of e-levated e-locution on white e-lephants?



To start with, one should first learn what simple commerce is, and then launch sales on the internet.



Before you attend powwows amid the serenity of woods outside Moscow or the grandeur of the capital’s hotels to rap about the new ways of enticing customers by implementing website customization, you need to get a bit more flexible offline.

See also § 65, about skin addiction


A fine example: there are 60 people working in the studio. So we decided to install a Coca-Cola refrigerator so that everyone could live by the slogan “Always Coca-Cola”.



We gave a call to the relevant company (Cola-Cola Refreshments Moscow or something sounding pretty much similar) to discover all at once that we can’t have a fridge installed, because to qualify for it, one has to at least run a supermarket and order a tanker of coke per week. Buying the fridge was out of the question, no matter how much you were ready to pay.



What you could have was a dispenser that accepts 10 ruble bills. No sooner said than done—we had one installed. Tenners instantly became a currency in the studio, although we originally planned to purchase the drinks in bulk and make them free for all staff members and guests.



One fine day a spy from the coke camp sneaked into our office and raised the price for the beverage to 12 rubles. From then on, apart from tenners one had to have a pocketful, a fistful or an armful of change to stay refreshed. Work came to a halt—a thirsty staff member, undaunted by the loss of his image, would lie in wait for colleagues in the hall and spring off the wall like a Spiderman, begging for change.



The studio came up with an excellent idea. The point was that with a choice limited to five different drinks, you quickly got fed up with all of them. So you stand for three or five minutes facing the dispenser and wondering what you should buy. You drop a coin, take a look around and ask people for a tip on what you should get. The idea was adding a randomizer button to the dispenser front panel that would pick something unpredictable every time. But the strictly-business hustlers from the coke office said, “Forget it” and “What a stupid thing to think of!”



The worst thing about the loathsome dispenser was that its bill feeder would break down very fast. The second problem was the rate of drinks consumption—the dispenser used to run dry by Sunday, while new supplies were delivered on Wednesdays only. No matter how we tried, we failed to make a case for the earlier delivery of bottles with the businessmen.



The story was put an end to when the dispenser had refused to accept bills for two weeks in a row and was depleted of all fluids by the staff with small change. On Sunday Coca-Cola workers with a jack were sent for; they hauled away the damn red whacker with a huge ice-glazed bottle painted on the front panel, scratching a wall in the studio.



A Mars dispenser (that used to eat electricity like mad) with chocolate bars inside had a still more deplorable fate. A bar sold for 9 rubles. Business quiz: how many times a day can 60 people find so much small change in their pockets? The black whacker with a huge half-eaten bar painted on the front panel lasted for three days and was hauled away by workers.



None of the companies installing such dispensers cares for profit: we offered transferring funds in an advance payment to get a drink or a chocolate just by pushing the button. Nope.



We have a good reason to wonder: why the hell should such companies ever need electronic commerce? Why the hell should other companies need it if they cannot provide smooth-running delivery, adjustment and maintenance services, performance, edibility and stuff? Try buying a pair of boots in a US online store. Even if you seek them out, you can have them delivered in Boston, never in Moscow.



Secondly, I just have pity for people. They won’t get any tangible benefits from ehh…commerce, because there’s no one out there who can explain to them what so great is going to happen after a cash register is connected to the internet.



A plan behind opening an internet store is clear enough: the guys apparently expect their e-doors to be ripped off the e-hinges as soon as they are online. But these shops aren’t exactly sites of global pilgrimage, because dumping products on an e-counter is not enough.



Opening an internet store takes a great deal of preparation. That’s exactly why a team of designers, psychologists, usability specialists and so on is hired. Graphic and information design professionals have to decide on how the sale process is to play out at the website. They have the final say-so after marketing researches are completed and factored in (by the way, marketing specialists must defend the case of a customer, not that of a company that uses the term e-commerce).



Moreover, before selling anything on the internet in Russia, going through the catalog sales stage is a must. Delivery service agencies must be there. Companies should seize every opportunity to sell their products. When all this is in place, nailing a big letter E to the shop sign is OK.







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