Building an e-commerce infrastructure no easy task

If Y2K now appears to be as old as some sepia-toned attic photos, it’s probably because you’ve been just as utterly consumed by the new challenge of the century – namely, the imperative to build a 21st- century e-commerce infrastructure.

At least the Y2K issue came with fairly simple directions: Fix it. In fact, the IT world may never again face such a clearly defined major problem, with cookbook remedies no less.

Forrester Research Inc. summed up the challenge neatly in addressing the e-commerce potential in Europe – potential that could reach a stunning $1.6 trillion in four years. Fulfilling that promise won’t come easily, Forrester notes, because the region must first “build e-commerce networks to help overcome social fears and resistance to change.” In recent conferences and forums, experts have been focusing their remarks regarding online business infrastructure in a surprisingly narrow band of observations, despite the relative complexity of the technical and strategic IT issues involved. Here’s a mix of their observations.


Very few e-commerce systems have been built to date. Instead, by using the high-tech equivalent of spit and baling wire, IT architects have retrofitted legacy systems to accommodate applications they were never built to handle.

The common thread of these projects is the desire to increase systems access and openness to customers and suppliers. Legacy systems, in comparison, were built to keep people out, not to invite them in.


Experts contend that Web sites today largely ignore customer goals and fall far short of meeting the essential requirements of a good user experience. The problem is that many people think a well-designed Web site (i.e., it’s pretty, you can get around quickly, etc.) should be regarded more like a storefront window design, which is anything but mission-critical.

For example, consider that buyers returned about 10 percent of all Christmas gifts bought online this past holiday season – double the return rate for gifts bought at stores. That’s a significant statistic, since many consumers found the online returns process cumbersome compared with going back to an actual store.

How many – if any – retail sites will think about modifying their sites to make it easier for the customer to make returns and possibly cheaper for the retailer to process?

Something as simple as a downloadable return label or a return tracking system would be a good start, or possibly the ability to make in-store returns of items bought online, as a few online vendors now offer.

Seen in this light, e-retailing is a hybrid of merchandising and marketing that is flexible and intelligent enough to anticipate customer needs based upon the most recent customer experiences.

Not only are legacy systems not built for e-commerce applications, but the all- important systems management tools that enable you to control legacy systems won’t work in the dynamic, intranet/extranet-oriented e-commerce environment. Simply put, they were optimized for a more static, controlled-access environment.

Some observers feel that e-commerce-specific management tools won’t be available for three or four years. They’re absolutely key to building a back office that not only supports the transaction- oriented front end, but can be controlled and managed, just like today’s legacy systems.