Running Out of Ink

A few weeks ago, I spent the better part of a day hunting down some

printer ink cartridges. During my travels, I came across the dark

underbelly of several otherwise fine Web storefronts. To make matters

worse, after all that online shopping I ended up buying the cartridges

at a physical retail store. The sites (Buy.com, Outpost.com, and

others) all had one failing in common: they never indicated, during the

entire eCommerce process, whether the ink cartridges were actually in

stock.

Anyone that owns an ink jet printer knows the frustration of running

out of ink, and those cheap printers consume vast quantities of not-so-

cheap ink and paper. Once your kids find out they can print everything

in color, from their most mundane homework assignments to crisp digital

photographs that rival those taken by ordinary film cameras, you can

quickly go through ink. On top of this, every printer has a special

kind of cartridge, of course.

I ran into problems trying to find the cartridge for my Epson printer.

First, I went to Epson's own Web site. Their personalized storefront

allows me to bring up a reorder list for my particular printer. I

quickly saw that they were out of stock on my items. It was nice of

them to tell me up front, before I got several pages down the road and

in the thick of trying to complete my order. So, I went elsewhere,

thinking this wouldn't be too hard.

It was. Other Web merchants would gladly sell me the ink, only they

were out of stock too. One vendor called me the next day and apologized

for being out of stock; of course, this was after I navigated through

their Web pages to find the right cartridge and carefully compared the

part number with the ones from Epson's site. Calling me was a nice

touch, although I would have preferred they just state up front that

they were just as out of ink as my printer at home. Maybe it costs the

vendor less money to maintain a call center than to implement a Web-

based inventory system. In a twisted way, given that quite a few Web

storefronts don't have online inventory status information available to

their customers, this makes sense.

I found my ink cartridge at a local Staples; it was the last one in the

store. Boy, did I feel lucky that day. How did I figure out to go

there? The vendor who called me kindly suggested them as a possible

alternative to their online store.

Now my printer has ink, but I am not done with Epson's own storefront.

While they deserve kudos for their inventory status information, their

Java Server Pages' design don't win any awards. Go to their home page

now and see if you can get to their storefront. The only indication

that you are actually at their store can be found in the URL itself:

http://www.epson.com/cgi-bin/Store/index.jsp. Click on anything on this

page and you will see a new set of screens with a link to "my account"

at the top of the page. After entering my email address and password, I

am brought to a very nice page to reorder supplies and track my order.

Because it has some nasty URL tied to a dynamically generated page, I

can't bookmark this or return to it without first going through the

main storefront page. That isn't good.

Personalized pages are terrific, unless you can't access them quickly

and without a lot of clicking. Web storefronts without online inventory

information aren't good if your customers can't actually get the items

they need. Ideally, you want both elements in your Web site, and you

want ways that customers can track their orders too via UPS/FedEx

tracking numbers tied to their particular orders. In the meantime,

stock up on those spare ink cartridges. You never know when you will be

running out of ink.

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