Closing the book on e-commerce

Mention the Internet at a cocktail party and suddenly you find yourself surrounded by whirling dervishes.

They have wild staring eyes and hands gnarled from constant keyboard pounding. Between their bouts of frothing at the mouth they regale you with tales of incredible acts of “surfing,” which you usually find absolutely boring.

It seems that they return from a hard day at the office (no doubt fully equipped with the mandatory PC), wolf down their TV dinners and fix themselves rigidly to the screen that takes them to the ‘net.”

They explore the universe, they tell you, and enter new relationships with people all over the world and suck up information like pigs at a trough. At some time during this sacrifice in front of the glowing oracle, they kiss their children goodnight, mumble a few words to their spouse and perhaps feed their pet.

This preoccupation is not a search for knowledge, but rather a fascination for viewing facts.

But the ‘net does have tremendous potential, because it allows one to communicate very cheaply with friends and relatives. You just have to look at the economics and see how much you save. For $30 a month for Internet service (ignoring the several thousands spent on the PC, software and such) you can send messages (jokes are popular) to any or all of your friends who have also armed themselves with the Internet.

Before the Internet we always used to speak to at least one person per day out there in the distance, didn’t we? So if we actually spoke to one friend a day for 15 minutes (using those cheap call magic numbers) it would cost the same as our Internet services. But then we would probably get into discussions and become friendly. Talking to real people instead of cyber names is boring. So forget the old friends, relatives and business acquaintances, to say nothing of all those names in the telephone book.

Who wants to talk to a real person when clicking keys is more musical, and doesn’t one just love flicking around those cute icons?

But one has to admit, used properly, the ‘net is a powerful tool. The tensioner on my leather adjustable chair bust. A quick clickity-click on the Web and I found the manufacturer and left a message. The next day I had an e-mail message from Norway that asked for my address, and a week or two later a new tensioner arrived in the mail.

So, the several thousands of dollars (the price of about six new chairs) for my rig has been justified somewhat. I just cannot wait for something else to break!

The ‘net is also a powerful commercial tool. Take e-commerce. In typical North American style, the e-commerce approach was touted as so powerful that a lot of companies just had to get in on it.

Consider the sale of books, for instance. They are probably the ideal e-commerce commodity, being small (low postage), easy to stock (they do not come in different colours or sizes), and easily described (each has an unalterable title), and they all have one simple price.

One would imagine that a well-run company with gobs of book-selling experience would clean up in the e-commerce field. So, let us look at a few of the big contenders who are right in there with what seems to be an e-commerce-friendly product. Well, Chapters reported a loss of $11.7 million, Barnes & Noble reported a loss of US$38.36 million, and that right-in-your-face-when-you-sign-on company,, reported a loss of US$323.3 million.

And if you are shocked by this dreadful tale of woe, you will be devastated to learn that these are quarterly reports.

Robinson has been involved with high-tech Canadian start-up companies – including Cisco, Sytek, and Comten – for more than 30 years. He can be reached at