In IA Thought, Information Architecture
Summary: We still talk about e-commerce as if it's a separate channel; yet increasingly, for actual customers, it's just commerce. There is no E.

There is no "e" in commerce anymoreLast month, as I was trying to get my particularly ornery inkjet printer to cough up a boarding pass before I had to leave home for the airport, I had a sort of epiphany: I didn’t want e-commerce. I wanted ink.

That may sound obvious, but let me explain.

I had just installed a fresh ink cartridge that I’d received via mail-order through Amazon. But it didn’t work. Sure, I could send it back for a refund or replacement, but that didn’t solve my problem in the moment. And that meant, I had to go find one at a local store.

I’ve been doing Internet-related work since before the Web, so you’d think I’d know better than to do what I did next, but I wasn’t thinking very clearly because I was in a hurry: I opened Google and typed “Ink Cartridge [plus name and model number] near 30324” … to my in-a-hurry head it seemed like the thing to do. Then, when I saw the results, I realized I hadn’t been thinking, because I actually know better than to expect a search like that to work. Why? Because I know that e-commerce has an information architecture problem.

What’s the “E” for?

See, we still talk about e-commerce as if it’s a separate channel; that’s what the “e” is for. Yet increasingly, for actual customers, it’s just commerce. There is no E.

Businesses, however, are largely still trying to overcome the limitations of their entrenched, legacy infrastructures, supply chains, organizational structures and the rest. For them, it’s a long, tough road toward making everything part of the “e.”

This disconnection between the online catalog and the point-of-sale inventory has a history. Back when most big-box retailers started putting up websites with catalogs and transactional capabilities, they were trying to be like Amazon: mail-order shopping from the cloud. If you wanted to buy something shippable that they had in their online catalog, great. If you wanted to buy something from a store, however, the common solution used on their websites was to give you a “Store Finder” to locate a nearby location, and a phone number where you can call to find out what they have in stock. Surprisingly, this is still the approach for many national chains (Ace Hardware is one example I’ve checked lately). But more and more, customers want to just *shop* without worrying what channel something is in. Stores are an intermediary, not the experience itself.

Over the last few years, retailers have been trying to sync their web/cloud experience with their stores, but they’ve typically had large hurdles to overcome. Among them:

– Changing organizational structures: online and local-store verticals are in separate silos, sometimes competing against each other.

– Cultural assumptions within the organization, a big one being that the Web is a mail-order catalog for computers, and people only use it when they want mail-order items.

– Replacing inherited services infrastructures that were geared for traditional operations, tracking store-level information for internal use, not regional information for customer-browsing. For example, products might be in databases, but not with the right kind of information structured in the right way for a customer-facing experience.

Some Stores are Further Along

A few stores tried going the other way, asking users their zip codes and then tapping into local store databases. Even there, it’s taking a long time to change the legacy IT systems into something nimble enough to serve the decontextualized onslaught of Web customers.

Of course there were exceptions that did it very well all along, and others who are managing to overcome the hurdles to bring real-time inventory shopping for local stores to a web connection near you. In 2010, Nordstrom made a bit splash in the business press by linking real-time inventory to their web experience. REI has been fulfilling most of its online orders as in-store pickups for years, and Best Buy was recently trying a beta feature to show availability at nearby stores for every item in a product list.

At this point, the "e" in e-commerce is like saying you have an "electrified home"WalMart recently added an “In My Store” tab, though even they — the great pioneer of just-in-time inventory data management — still need a disclaimer saying “Your local store may carry additional or similar items that are not listed on our site.” And they’re still tied to looking at one store at a time, rather than giving me easy access to physical inventory at all the WalMarts in my area.

The fact is that retail operations, from massive big-box brands to even a local pet supply store, are still dragging themselves out of the seemingly ancient processes and structures that emerged over several generations before the first personal computer was ever purchased.

It’s Just One Environment

Unfortunately for retailers, their customers already have high expectations. They don’t want to have to worry about which store they’re shopping: to them, it’s all one big environment for getting information about products in order to take action. Mail-order vs Store pick-up is a matter of “do I feel like driving to the store, or would it be easier to just have it sent to me?” Companies like Amazon are already moving into this hyper-local availability model: they have plans to open even more warehouses closer to customer locations, so they can fulfill with same-day delivery.

However, even once retailers get everything sorted out and have seamless real-time local inventory available on the web, there are still big challenges.

Where Am I?

Customers search and browse retail sites in order to take care of some need, whether that need is already well-defined or not.  The “how” of acquiring the product isn’t the problem they’re wanting to solve—their focus is on the task at hand of finding something, learning about it, deciding if they want it. It’s only at that point when most customers start thinking about how they will actually get their hands on it and pay for it.

If you’re a retailer that has both online and in-store purchase models, your online store’s interface has to do a lot of work to clarify context for the user: which of these are available online vs in a store around me? How many of them? If I check out, am I checking out in just one store or can I order things that are available in multiple locations?

And once the customer is ready to check out, does the system make it crystal clear what fulfillment method applies to which product, what the timing for delivery or in-store availability is, or what details are necessary for home delivery?

Where Information Architecture Comes In

It turns out, information architecture is a major factor in most of the challenges I’ve listed, from the taxonomy and content around products in a catalog, to creating the right series of steps for cart and checkout, and even helping users understand if they’re in a context of “cloud” or “store” or “region.”

Much of what information architecture does is look at the environment around humans, find the key information structures that give that environment meaning, and structure them in a better way so the complex is made more clear. It also shapes those information structures to encourage different behaviors and work patterns.

At this point, the “E” in e-commerce is like saying you have an “electrified home,” which was a big deal back when Edison was still alive. Now, people inhabit an environment that’s as fully saturated with networked information as it is with electrical light.  Reaching out to ask that environment where I can find a printer cartridge at a store nearby? It should be as easy as turning on a light-switch.

But that’s a long way off for most companies. So, when it isn’t so easy, and when it’s complicated because of all the necessary-but-real constraints still in the way, it’s more important than ever to have explicitly shaped architectures. Carefully choreographed information experiences that set the right expectations, establish clear context, and provide the right affordances for understanding.


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  • Rick castanho

    Well said!! 🙂

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