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People make the web, not computers

As the Internet matures, I see a trend starting to surface. As we know, Maslow's hierarchy of human needs states that a foundational, human need, after survival and safety needs, is the need for social interaction. Like it or not, we are social animals -- and the web doesn't change that.

Some pundits have claimed that the Internet will "drown" and overthrow the retail establishment. Obviously, this is not true. While it is true that the Internet is changing the landscape of the bricks-and- mortar retail world, it will not destroy it completely. (In fact, the web has fueled the growth of entirely new retail business models, which I will discuss later in this article.)

I believe that those retail establishments that will likely suffer the "wrath of the web" will certainly be those stores that do not provide some degree of social interaction or, at the very least, human involvement. Why? Since there is a lack of social interaction, then the element of convenience takes over -- a deciding factor in the patronage of most e-tailers.

People have told me, "If there is no interaction, why bother?" They think, "If I can't talk to someone, then I might as well stay at home and order via my computer; to me, it's the same thing."

(A case in point is the downfall of what are called "catalogue showrooms," such as Consumers Distributing for example, which are retail stores that merely provide order fulfillment and nothing else. When people visit these stores, all they get is a catalogue, a pad and a pencil. Then write their orders down and then wait in line to fill their "requests." That's it.)

On the other hand, stores that do provide human interaction will continue to grow. Some of my students have told me that the reason they don't buy as often online -- granted, they are not big spenders (yet) -- is the fact that going to the mall gives them something to do and particularly with other people (i.e., it gives them the chance to meet other people).

Similarly, larger stores (or "superstores"), shopping malls with amusement park-like attractions, supermarkets and category killers (larger chain stores that specialize in a particular product category, like Toys 'R' Us and Home Depot, for example) seem to be sprouting like mad.

Why is that? There are, in my opinion, at least two reasons. First, since the element of convenience is one of the web's "raisons d'être," then in order for an offline retail store to compete -- let alone survive -- it needs to provide a level of convenience comparable to the Internet: Service, selection and price. (Larger stores and shopping malls permit such.)

But second and more important, this insatiable need for human interaction is also influencing the bricks-and-mortar retail establishment. More and more retail stores are becoming like "hangouts." We see this with larger stores as well as shopping malls, with their food courts, playgrounds and arcade games. Again, they're becoming like amusement parks.

For example, after hours of walking through numerous isles at your local Wal-Mart, you turn the corner and, luckily, stumble upon a McDonald's Restaurant. And while visiting Barnes and Noble (or Indigo Chapters, if you're in Canada), you investigate the latest book selections while at the same time sipping on your favorite Starbucks coffee blend.

Needless to say, the web is not immune to this change.

When the web first began, it was easy for an online business to achieve a certain market share. Early entrants fulfilled the needs of a relatively small group of people, with human interaction being the last thing on their minds. But as the masses take to the Internet, and like the bricks-and-mortar retail world, that need for humanness will become evident.

Consequently, it is my estimation that websites, which do not provide a level of human interaction, will likely suffer the same fate: Be destroyed by a lack of sales or by the crushing blow of larger competitors. "All sorts of web concerns are finding that their good ideas and enticing offers are being cast in the shadow of much bigger competitors," says Thomas Goetz in TheStandard.com. "Whether it's eBay, Amazon.com or another category killer, the little guys are lost."

Over 20 years ago, at a time when the web didn't even exist, futurist John Naisbitt wrote a book called "Megatrends." One particular trend, called "high-tech-high-touch," is one in which Naisbitt predicted this increasing gravitation toward greater human interaction. Simply put, as society becomes more high-tech, it will become, correspondingly, more high-touch.

But another yet important interpretation is this: The more automated we become (or the more dehumanized we become in other words, which is certainly the case with the Internet), then the more we will seek out (or crave) social interaction. (In fact, the author found this megatrend to be so important that he recently wrote a follow-up book entirely devoted to it -- it's the "high-tech-high-touch" megatrend. For more information, visit John Naisbitt's site at http://hightechhightouch.com/.)

Therefore, as the Internet and ecommerce grow, so too will the need for incorporating interactivity and the human element on the web. We see this already with two significant trends: The growth in relationship marketing and of online communities.

The first of these is most apparent in the popularization of CRM (or "customer relationship management"). While web content personalization is one of them, the use of Internet telephony and voice over IP technology is also becoming widespread. For instance, it enables a certain interaction with a live person while visiting a website (likely customer support).

Sites offering these services (some of them are free) include:

Here are some examples: Altrec at http://www.altrec.com/ is a sporting goods retailer that uses live customer service (see their "live help" link at the top of their webpage). (Nevertheless, for more on upcoming customer relationship management technologies, visit http://www.CRMDaily.com/. An active discussion group is available at http://CRMGuru.com/.)

As for online communities, the need to interact not only with companies and their support staff but also with other like-minded people is on the rise. With stores now offering private clubs, discussion lists, message boards and chatrooms, we can also say that e-stores are becoming like "hangouts," too.

(It's important to note that the next step above the need for social interaction, in Maslow's pyramid, is the need for belonging. And communities seem to answer to both quite well.)

Sites offering these services (some of them are free) include:

An example is Adaptec at http://www.adaptec.com/, a computer peripheral vendor, which manages a very active discussion list aimed at answering customer and tech support issues. Another is http://www.stardock.com/, a software firm, which maintains newsgroups in its own newsgroup-based community -- each group being dedicated to a specific software, topic or segment.

In conclusion, the important thing to remember is this: Like it or not, human interaction on the web is on the rise. While you may be a small business and cannot afford such a luxury, you can at least start an online community for your visitors and clients, even if it's a simple message board or discussion list. It will help increase credibility, trust and sales. But at the same time, it will also position your company above your competitors, especially above those that do not provide any involvement whatsoever.

So, beware ... Or be aware.

About the author
Michel Fortin is a direct response copywriter and consultant dedicated to turning sales messages into powerful magnets. Get a free copy of his book, "The 10 Commandments of Power Positioning," when you subscribe to his free monthly ezine, "The Profit Pill." See http://SuccessDoctor.com/ now!

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