January I 2008

Fredric Morris, Editor-In-Chief, Connect-World
Fredric Morris
Editor-In-Chief
Connect-World

eHolidays – shopping, traffic, third place and dropping notes

Traffic, crowded parking lots, difficulties with routine purchases, and a computer that died, started me thinking about year-end shopping, on-line help, changing markets and changing habits.

In many parts of the world Christmas shopping, the frantic rush to get presents for family and friends, starts in November. In the United States the Christmas shopping season unofficially begins on Black Friday. On Black Friday, the day after the Thanksgiving holiday – always celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, most Americans do not work. Each year on this day stores reduce prices on a wide variety of merchandise; this draws great numbers of shoppers.

In recent years the advent of eCommerce has given people the option of shopping online. This has reduced the traffic on the roads and reduced some of the traffic at the stores, but not enough to alert a casual observer. Still, the Nielsen Online site reported that the 120 online retailers it tracked on Black Friday saw e-shopping growth of ten per cent this year – some 21.2 million unique visitors this year compared to 19.2 million last year. Web traffic for consumer electronics rose 235 per cent from Friday the week before. In second place, traffic for computer hardware and software grew 121 per cent. I sort of expected that; nowadays it isn’t Christmas if you can’t plug it in.

What surprised me was the growth of shopping comparison portals, in third place, registering a 95 per cent growth in traffic.

Several hours before Christmas Eve, I drove to a nearby supermarket to buy light bulbs and a few odds and ends. Normally a very quick drive, it took more than half an hour of creeping along in intense traffic; last minute shoppers clogged the major roads and slowed traffic even in my quiet neighborhood.

Back home, I ran into traffic once again, this time on the Internet, checking shopping comparison sites looking for a laptop to replace one that recently died in service – it bit off more Connect-World than it could chew.

I am not much of a holiday shopper – any kind of a shopper for that matter, except when in need. When I do shop, I like to see what I am buying. I pick up laptop after laptop, feel the weight, check the keyboard, hinges and screen and go from store to store to check the prices. At least that’s how I used to do it. Nowadays, instead of ‘hitting the street’, I surf the Net. Holidays or peak hours I still run into traffic, but it’s on the Internet; I find what I am looking for sitting at my desk. I might run to a store for a final check, but only after I have compared the specs, the reviews and prices on the Internet and am 99 per cent sure of what I want.

People are slow to change, but the advantages of comparing and buying online are so evident that even creatures of habit, and I am one, now prefer the Web – especially when the specific items and brands are well-known or when the decision is predominantly rational – based upon objective considerations (technology, price…) as opposed to personal preferences, style and taste.

The Internet really helps shoppers; the mobile Net with time will help more. We have all called someone for advice when we can’t find an item we are trying to buy. Mobile phones and a number of new sites make this even easier. A quick search of the Internet for mobile services turned up a wide variety of mobile shopping comparison sites for house hunters, electronics, books (even a Japanese language version of Amazon.com) among many others. There is even a mobile site (MizPee) serving several U.S. cities, which quickly finds public restrooms while one is out shopping and in need.

Needless to say, both Google and Yahoo have their own mobile comparison shopping sites. Not to be left behind, some operators let their subscribers compare prices, browse and buy items from their phones – Verizon Mobile Web 2.0’s mShopper site is an example. One can purchase items seen on mobile shopping sites using credit cards. Visa (no doubt others as well) offers pre-paid card vouchers that let people without credit cards shop online.

The comparison shopping scene is quite innovative and promises to become even more so. If an item you are looking at has a barcode, you can phone, text or access Frucall on the mobile Web with your smartphone or PDA to check prices and alternatives. If someone hasn’t already done it, I am sure that one day soon there will be a service that, when you point your cell phone’s camera at a barcode, will check your position using the phone’s built-in GPS system and find the best price in the neighborhood for the item you are looking at.

Raymond S.T. Lee of the Department of Computing at Hong Kong Polytechnic University has proposed the use of intelligent, “mobile agent-based systems”. The systems use “fuzzy-neuro agent” technology and provide “intelligent mobile web shopping” on any WAP-ready mobile device. As far as I can tell, this service is not yet available, but it is interesting to see the sort of thought and effort going into mobile shopping.

‘Contextual’ online shopping will let one ‘click and buy’ products that appear, for example, on mobile TV, and there are services that let you hold your cell phone to a radio or TV, automatically identify the music playing, download it to your phone and charge your credit card.

Today, one can select holiday greeting cards and send them online to family and friends. When you remember to send a card to someone while on the street, you can send it – then and there – via your cell phone.

The number of ‘real’ holiday greeting cards I receive keeps dropping year by year – as do handwritten notes and letters. Although this might not please greeting card companies, it does help save the world’s forests.

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Our next Connect-World Europe issue will be published later this month. The issue will be widely distributed to our reader base and, as well, at shows where we are one of the main media sponsors such as: GSM World Congress (Mobility World Congress), Barcelona, Spain (11-14 February), CeBit, Hanover, Germany (4-9 March), IPTV World Forum, London, UK (12-14 March) and SOFNET, London, UK (21-24 April).

Distinctions among traditional services providers are increasingly blurred. Not so long ago, the last-mile technology service providers used essentially defined what they were and gave them control over their users – they ‘owned’ the subscribers to their services. Today, IP-based converged networks mean traditional voice, data or video service providers can – all of them – economically deliver any and all of the services offered by any other type of player. Nowadays, service providers may no longer own their customers; indeed – heresy of heresies – they may not even own their own networks. Skype, Google TV, MySpace and YouTube did not even exist a decade ago, yet they are a mighty threat to ICT sector business as usual.

Telcos offer IPTV and data, cablecos offer phone service and data and ISPs offer whatever service they can, and all are poaching upon territory that once belonged exclusively to the broadcasters. The competition is growing, although in many cases the income still isn’t – the traditional companies with the experience and the customers have an edge – but that is changing and so are the business models.

The profound changes IP networks bring to the sector are, perhaps, most clearly seen in the planning by nearly all service providers to provide entertainment, and in the rapid proliferation of entertainment delivery platforms. The impact upon the broadcast sector cannot easily be calculated, but everyone involved in delivering entertainment – content providers, the advertising industry, telcos, cablecos, ISPs and equipment manufacturers among others – is affected. As the sector ramps up to meet the demand for the new services, regulators, lawyers, manufacturers, carriers, service providers and the consumer will all have significant changes to deal with and difficult decisions to make.

Europe I 2008 Media Pack; Click here

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