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It's the Vision Thing, People

9 Mar, 2004 By: Holly J. Wagner

This industry is due for a big dose of vision. You can't blame downloading for everything, though it's at the heart of a bigger truth: a lot of music chains went down because the industry wouldn't keep up with the times. Technology is accelerating everyone's expectations. It started with the instant gratification of the TV remote, and by now everyone expects any little clicky thing in their hand to yield instant results. Sometimes it's a phone. Sometimes it's a mouse. Sometimes it's a purse.

Not every chain has a presence in my market, so I can only talk about the ones that do. I have yet to go to a TransWorld store with a POS system synched to what is on the Web sites. Wherehouse wasn't, even before TransWorld took it over. It's incredibly frustrating for Susie Consumer not to find the product in stores or in stock on the company Web site. That hollow Web catalog listing is kind of like finding the milk carton empty in the refrigerator – who left it there and why?

It's even more frustrating when, as happened to me around the holidays, a product that isn't in the local stores shows up as “in stock” on the Web site, but Susie orders the product and gets an email five days later saying the order was cancelled because the company couldn't fill it.

Then ratchet that up a notch: Susie is in the store, standing at a computer terminal next to the cash registers and the online price is different from the in-store price. Or she wants to sell some discs, but the Web site is paying a different price from the store. Or worse, the site will buy the product but the store won't because the title doesn't scan. So much for doing your homework in advance, because visiting the Web site first is futile.

I understand that it's difficult and often expensive to integrate new e-commerce systems with existing store-based POS systems (legacy systems, in techspeak). Unfortunately most chains can't even get the stores linked to a single system that reports at all the contact points, much less to their Web sites. That's a rental chain plague, too: returning the product to the same place you got it is understandable. But needing a different card for each store is ridiculous in the 21st Century (to its credit, Blockbuster is promising it will solve that problem by year's end).

It was hard enough for retailers to get the basics connected when stores only rented and sold stuff, but now with the used disc trade and stores buying stuff, the gaps are really glaring. I don't see much improving on this front.

My hat is off to Steve Furst and his crew at djangos.com. They managed to integrate more than 300 individual stores – multiple independently-owned stores and small chains – into one giant POS system that reports to everyone in near real time via the ever-refreshing Web site. The site isn't buying product yet, but that's in the works. Meanwhile, all those independent retailers buy product and fill orders to feed the system. If one retailer didn't have Susie's title, the order would have rolled over to the next and the next until she got her disc.

It's really pretty amazing that what some entrepreneurs were able to salvage from a bankruptcy a couple of years ago functions better now than systems at most established chains. It's sad that bankruptcy had to be the catalyst. It's also an allegory. There's no longer any such thing as “Business as usual.” The Internet is here to stay, not just for downloading but as a competitive retail force. It's the vision thing, people.

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