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E-commerce Tops $1 Trillion in 2012
 

This is probably the most important stat you'll see this year. The question is, what's your game plan now?

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Been putting off e-commerce, even for seemingly sound reasons? Brace yourself, because some numbers are about to assault your logic. According to data research aggregator eMarketer, business-to-consumer e-commerce sales topped $1 trillion in 2012, representing more than 21 percent year-over-year growth.

And according to eMarketer, it's not going to slow down anytime soon. The firm estimates that 2013 will see an additional 18.3 percent boost, to hit nearly $1.3 trillion. Those are some big numbers--large enough to even make a lot of government spending look small in comparison.

But why should you care? It's not as though someone is offering you a significant slice of the take, right?

A Big Shift

The figure shows that there's a significant cultural shift happening around the world. When people change their behavior, smart entrepreneurs take note, because it's at times like these that you can paint yourself into a corner and become part of the next buggy whip industry made obsolete by an impending love of the automobile.

Consumers are skipping the brick-and-mortar shopping experience and instead increasingly placing orders over a computer. It's a difference in mindset, and not even one that you can blame on the "cocooning" idea that marketing consultant Faith Popcorn made popular in the 1990s. People aren't staying at home to place product orders and withdraw from the world.

Back to eMarketer again, which estimated back in late 2011 that 2012 mobile commerce would hit $11.6 billion. It turns out the firm was off--by a lot. Mobile retail commerce neared $25 billion last year.

Price certainly might be a driver. E-commerce generally means a small number of distribution facilities versus store locations, which translates into greater efficiency and lower operation costs. But there is often far greater variety than any store can muster. Plus, realistically speaking, how helpful do you find store personnel at most retail locations? If you're going to deal with people who don't understand what they sell and who don't have the power to help when things get sticky, you might as well sit down with a bot.

The growth in online sales means that if you're in a b2c business--or even a b2b one, for that matter, as people often learn purchasing habits at home--you must have an e-commerce strategy. That doesn't necessarily mean that you must have an e-commerce site. But you have to recognize that people have e-commerce expectations and drives.

What to Do

If you do sell online and are in an industry where products or their equivalents are readily available, you need relationships with the big e-commerce vendors, as they are the ones that will most often appear at the top of searches and will be destinations in their own right.

That isn't just true in North America. In 2012, 30.5 percent of e-commerce took place in the Asia-Pacific region, while 33.5 percent was in North America, and 30.7 percent in Europe. (Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa are still lagging behind.)

But you have to pick real-world points of presence just as carefully. Make sure that customers have a way to get support during the sales process, even if it's a toll-free number printed in large type on the product package along with the message, "If you're stuck, call."

In other words, no matter what your sales and distribution mechanisms, be smart and look at how people behave. Observe and anticipate their needs, and then meet them. Do that, and you'll get along with this shift in socio-economic behavior just fine. Miss the point, and you could always get into the buggy whip business. I hear there isn't a lot of competition these days.

Last updated: Feb 11, 2013

ERIK SHERMAN's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.
@ErikSherman




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