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
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.