BBC News

The long and winding road of e-commerce

By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News

image captionIn a few short years many of us have all become web shopping veterans

For most of us buying stuff online, be it groceries, galoshes or gadgets, is easy peasy. We are veterans of browsing catalogues, clicking buy buttons and typing in credit card numbers.

But the same is not true of many of the companies running the sites we use. For them e-commerce is not a settled science.

Food supply firm 3663 is just starting to dip its digital digits into cyber selling.

The company delivers ingredients, finished meals and snacks to pubs, hospitals, schools, bars and restaurants across the UK.

3663 had its catalogue online for years, said Nicholas Weber, the company's head of technology, but had not felt the need to go beyond that.

"Customers meet with sales people face-to-face and place their order with the same telesales agent they've had for many years," said Mr Weber. "There has not really been a need or desire from many customers to move online and start ordering there."

But Mr Weber recognises that the situation has changed because his customers are now handling many other parts of their lives online.

So, 3663 has embarked on a "massive" technology project to turn its static web brochure into a fully-fledged shop.

"This is the first time we have gone into this in a big way," he said.

Trials with a few select customers will take place in the run-up to Christmas. 3663 wants to play it safe at one of its busiest times of the year.

But the move still involves big changes behind the scenes. The firm has overhauled its stock management system using open source Magento technology, to ensure that customers only order what it can deliver.

The company also plans to offer detailed information about its products' nutritional values, recipe suggestions and seasonal favourites.

"That puts power in our customers' hands that they have never had before," said Mr Weber. "For customers, like schools and hospitals or care homes, they can now make a considered choice between products based on the level of fat or sugar or carbohydrate."

There are good business reasons for all the extras.

Competiton within the industry and tough economic times meant there was not much scope to cut prices, said Mr Weber.

Higher purchase

For every 3663 taking its first serious steps into web commerce, there is also a veteran breaking new ground.

One example is the security firm G4S which has just begun putting some of its services into the cloud - meaning they are hosted on the internet.

The company - formerly known as Group 4 Security - has run its E-Viper service on the web for years.

The service sends data to clients about where their cash and valuables are and what is happening to them.

"It's our end-to-end track and trace system for cash and valuables," said Richard Wallace, the firm's technology chief. "It's how we deliver cash to banks and ATMs."

G4S is moving the application off its own datacentre and onto Microsoft's servers. It should mean lower costs and less downtime.

"The move means we can focus our attention on the application and the application development," Mr Wallace said.

Until now G4S technology workers were preoccupied with looking after E-Viper's equipment. Now they can concentrate on improving the way it works.

"It means we can use some of the innovations that are coming down the track and pass that on to our customers," said Mr Wallace.

Costly mistake

Many firms embark on e-commerce because of the opportunities it gives them to gain insights into their business.

image captionThese days chatter about a company on a social network could cause sales to slump

But that that can be a challenge, says Dr John Bates from Progress Software, because of all the data that is generated. To the untrained eye everything looks relevant.

Progress makes data visualisation tools that help retailers recognise what is significant.

Getting it wrong can be costly.

Take the example of website forms that ask visitors to register before they can buy anything.

Many firms instruct the form to pop up just before a customer needs to tap in his or her credit card number.

They reason that first timers will be happy to be helped to make their transaction while regular customers will welcome the purchase process being sped up.

However, research by usability expert Jared Spool suggests they are wrong. His surveys found that mandatory registration forms irritated newbies and veterans alike.

But he discovered that making registration optional and tweaking the form's language could lead to a big boost in sales.


Applying visualisation tools to e-commerce applications could act like an "X-ray" helping diagnose their weak points, said Dr Bates.

In the early days the biggest problems were things like overloaded servers or images that took too long to appear.

Now it is more likely to be critical comments posted on social networks or external events such as natural disasters.

"It's about finding out where the bottlenecks are and moving to improve them," said Dr Bates. "Managers know their business but may not know their process."

Mr Weber, from 3663, recognises the potential for fine-tuning.

"I think it is going to open up a lot of different angles and I'm not sure what they all are," he said. "Our normal processes and systems may well get reviewed and changed."

"That element of serendipity is the most exciting part of this," he said.

"We are building it for certain reasons but there are a lot of byproducts that come out of it that we have not thought of before that might turn out to be important."

It is clear that, as with many other things, e-commerce is a journey rather than a destination.

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