In the past few months, it seems as if I’ve put enough oil in my car to rival what the Exxon Valdez left on the shores of Prince William Sound. With more miles than Elizabeth Taylor and enough rust to make the Titanic look relatively pristine, I figured that my ride needed an upgrade. So I hopped online hoping to make quick work of finding my next car.
What should’ve been easy?checking out the 2003 models on the website of a certain Japanese car manufacturer?turned out to be impossible. When I first logged on to the site, I was informed that I needed to download a fancy plug-in before I could see any cars. Do I know what version my browser is? Well, of course not, so I had to try a few different options. After a few miscues, I could enter the site, but I still hadn’t seen a single photo of the car I wanted. Every time I clicked on the link for a visual, I got sent to an online version of purgatory. “You are not authorized to use this page,” read the boldface type, and the fine print wasn’t any better: “You might not have permission to view this directory or page using the credentials you supplied.”
Credentials? All I did was click on a link. Could it be possible that the carmaker somehow knows about that moving violation I committed back in 1985?
Bring back the days of the smarmy salesman, please. I’ve had similar off-putting experiences with other sites ranging from high-tech ones, where some level of technical sophistication (a doctorate in computer science, perhaps) is expected, to basic consumer goods companies where appealing to the lowest common denominator should, you’d think, be the rule. While looking for an area retailer that carries cool-looking basketball sneakers, I never got past the shoe company’s homepage because my browser isn’t up to snuff. When my printer went on the fritz, I thought a quick visit to the company’s website might yield a treasure trove of troubleshooting information, or at the very least a customer service number. But I’ll never know because I was rebuffed at the opening gate after I repeatedly declined to find out more about the company’s new products in a pop-up window.
You Can Check Out, but You Can Never Leave
If there’s one saving grace about the experiences I had at car and printer sites, it’s that I didn’t have to invest any time inputting information or navigating the seemingly endless check-out processes. On more than one occasion, when I’ve tried to buy something, I’ve actually completed the check-out process and submitted my order only to be informed that something went wrong along the way.
Most recently, I logged on to the site of a cooking magazine I subscribe to because I wanted to order a cookbook. When I found the one I wanted (a task that should have been easier than it was), I proceeded directly to check-out. I registered, entered my shipping information and got as far as trying to pay for the darn thing only to be informed that my credit card authorization had failed. “Your account number is invalid,” the message said.
OK, maybe I had to insert those spaces between the numbers just as they appear on my card. No such luck. Maybe I need to type in the expiration date using four digits instead of the two as they appear on my card? Nope. Maybe I transposed a couple of numbers. Why don’t I read them out loud as I type? No go.
Now I’m flustered and somewhat concerned. Did I pay my last statement? Had someone stolen my card? Is this whole site a ruse set up by thieves to steal my card and possibly my identity? Do I really like to cook enough to put up with this?
At that point, I opted for the toll-free number, which in this case was listed on the website.
But the number was only for orders outside the United States.
So instead of a nice cookbook containing a year’s worth of recipes, my kitchen remains cluttered with a dozen dog-eared and flour-spattered magazines.
A Tangled Web
As these not-so-close encounters indicate, the Web is currently stuck in an ugly adolescent funk. In its infancy, it was hailed as a promising if misused sales and marketing tool. Too many sites, pundits said, didn’t do anything; they were nothing more than electronic brochureware that displayed products and described them with static ad copy. Today, several years into the Internet revolution, too many sites aren’t even brochureware. Requiring plug-ins, high-speed Internet access and a monitor the size of my dining room table, the sites make something as basic as window-shopping onerous.
With slick technology, websites can show off pulsating logos complete with theme song accompaniment, 360-degree product views and TV-quality video clips. That’s all well and good for people with serious computers or a hankering for downloading plug-ins all day long. But for many people like myself who just want to see an old-fashioned photo of a product, locate a nearby dealer or request a hard-copy catalog, all those bells and whistles add up to a big marketing black eye. Instead of enhancing a company’s image or creating an interactive advertising channel, the sites serve up heaping doses of frustration and annoyance. What’s the likelihood that I’ll drop 25 grand on a new car if that carmaker’s website throws me out like last week’s leftovers?
The Web is supposed to be fun, informative, intuitive and?ultimately?better than television. But no matter how inane or uncreative TV advertising is, it’s got one significant advantage over the Web. On TV, learning about a product or even buying that product through a toll-free number isn’t hard work. All you have to do is sit there. The message comes to you. With many sites on the Web, the user has to work, either downloading plug-ins or navigating through a byzantine collection of screens. Companies with poorly designed websites are in effect breaking a cardinal rule of selling: They make it hard for consumers to consume.
Now that surfing the Internet for product information is second nature to a lot of people, it’s even more important for companies to offer websites that can accommodate a range of technical capabilities. The Web, after all, is still a giant billboard first and a transaction platform second. Increasingly, many potential customers will first learn about a company and its wares through the Internet. Make a bad impression online, and companies won’t be given the opportunity to make up for it in person.
As for that new car, I really have my sights set on a certain model, and it just so happens that I live around the corner from a dealer. So I stopped by on my way home from work one day.
I told the sales rep I couldn’t access the website. He appeared bemused. “There’s much more information about the cars on the Internet,” he said, as he rummaged inside his desk for a dusty brochure.
Tell me about it.