When the internet first penetrated pop culture in a meaningful way, there were many casualties; businesses that thought that their person to person customer service would trump the impersonal buying experience offered by a two-dimensional website were wrong.
During the 1990's Christmas website sales began as a trivial metric, measured almost as a pastime. But as consumer confidence in the online buying experience grew, and the benefits of shopping from home and avoiding the hassles of traffic and costs of travel became more apparent, online sales exploded! Suddenly the naysayers who were certain that customers would not buy products they could not physically touch were surprised to find all the major companies jumping on the bandwagon and developing websites and putting their entire inventories online.
Remember how many brick and mortar travel agencies there used to be? They were everywhere. But as people discovered they could save crazy amounts of money by buying online, those agencies had to either enter the World Wide Web or go out of business. The strength of personal contact seemed less important than savings and convenience.
Just a few years ago, were you to tell someone that people would soon be buying automobiles online, a likely response would be, "No way. People want to kick the tires, take the car for a test drive." And yet more and more the only stop a customer makes to a car dealership is to pick up the model they ordered online.
Now consider cell phone stores? We already know that Verizon Wireless and AT&T Wireless are rolling out new concept stores which combine all their services under one roof. We know that two of the most costly expenses for a company are payroll and rent; consider how much the carriers could save if they could significantly reduced the number of brick and mortar stores and eliminated thousands of sales and management positions?
But if that was their goal we would see signs. We would see the carriers building dynamic interactive functionality into their websites.
Wait a second. They are doing that.
Well, we would see the websites offering incentives that the brick and mortar stores could not match, like waiving activation fees, free shipping, and additional discounts. Wait, they're doing that, too.
It's as though the carriers are trying to transition customers from an in-store buying experience to an online experience, which would earn them tremendous profits.
I floated this theory while I was working in the wireless retail sector and the responses I received were uniformly undaunted. No one believed me. They were quite certain that their jobs were secure and that no website could replace person to person customer service, kind of like a travel agency.
The responses I received reminded me of what it must have been like for the last bullwhip maker. Back in the horse and buggy days, if you had asked the bullwhip maker what he thought of that new motor car called the Model T, he may well have responded that it was a passing fad for the wealthy.
Obviously the transition from brick and mortar locations to a full online buying experience won't happen overnight; we simply haven't reached that point yet in the still very competitive wireless industry. In fact carriers are still opening new locations.
While working for one major carrier, I saw the same vignette played out over and over. A customer would come in and look at the phones, then tell the sales representative that he could get a much better deal online at the company's own website. The best the sales representative could respond with was a vague comment about how he could offer personal service and support. The fact is, the customer still gets all that, too.
For those who may doubt the veracity of this transition, ask yourself why a company would offer better deals online than they offer in their stores. If the goal was to just drive sales, they would offer the same deals. But if the goal was to transition buying behavior to internet sales, then the behavior makes perfect sense.
I invite your comments.