Bricks and mortar companies going online without changing their culture and the way they view their customers will have a nasty surprise in store, warned business leaders who have gone through the transition.
Delegates at Business Week's Digital Economy Conference, taking place this week in San Francisco, were told that traditional companies will find it difficult to realise that customers control businesses in the Internet world.
Gideon Sasson, enterprise president of electronic brokerage at investment company, Charles Schwab, said: "When you think of ebusiness you have to realise your focus is the customer. Your company is now focused on products or profits and losses [but in the ebusiness world] you have to figure out what your customers' needs are and how to serve them."
He believes that the winners will be those companies that can marry their brick and mortar businesses with their online channels, as Charles Schwab has done, in order to retain the human touch.
"Technology is simple and it's a commodity - it doesn't take long to copy anything on your website. So if you are just online you will become a commodity. Our strategy is to bring branches together with the technology because in financial services money is a very emotional thing. While computers are effective, they are not very emotional," he explained.
Another company that is integrating its traditional channel with its Web presence is US high street book retailer, Barnes & Noble and its online brand, bn.com. Jonathan Bulkeley, chief executive of bn.com told attendees that online channels will not cannibalise traditional businesses but help each other flourish. He explained that the book seller's strategy is to send customers "back and forth" from the shops and website, by enticing them with money off vouchers to be redeemed in and out of the stores.
He believes that there are enough potential customers for both channels. "Some 68 per cent of Barnes & Noble customers are online and only 32 per cent of those have bought books online. If you can get someone to shop in a shop and go online they will spend more with you," he said, arguing that online consumers do not make purchases on the Web exclusively.
Bulkeley also said Barnes & Noble had to undergo drastic change when it moved to the Web, including having to learn how to build relationships with customers as well as know how to run an Internet business. But he maintains that although bn.com lost the lead to Amazon.com, it is not too late for bn.com, or other companies in other industries that are in similar situations, to fight back because the Internet is constantly changing. "In 1996 14 per cent of online shoppers were guys - women will drive shopping going forward. Whoever shopped the most online in 1996 may not in the future - it will be women," he said.
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