User's Guide

I've done a fair amount of experimenting with buying various goods on the Web, yet I find myself unable to make the full transition to virtual shopper. This is the pattern that's emerged: I search out on-line stores or dealers' Web sites, read through the features and other information, track down the best prices--and then go to a real-world store to actually buy the thing. I, for one, still seem to require the encouragement and assurances of a live person to take me over the line from shopping to buying.

It may be that I'm just resisting change, and that with time I'll give up the need to look someone in the eye (or at least hear a voice) before I fork over my credit card. Or maybe the Web will be able to provide more human interaction through technologies like videoconferencing. Then again, there may be another, best-of-both-worlds solution: instead of waiting for the Web to provide more human interaction, maybe salespeople should bring some of the advantages of cyberspace to their face-to-face meetings now. In fact, the tools for doing so are available, and some hard-selling companies are already taking advantage of them. Staff writer Sarah Schafer describes some of the new approaches to computer-boosted sales in her cover story, " Supercharged Sell."

Companies that would prefer to cover all their bases, by selling hard both on-line and in 3-D, might do well to consider the example of Powell's City of Books. Powell's wanted to bring its successful retail formula to the Web but was determined to do it in a way that allowed the virtual store to complement the real-world one. That called for an approach to Web-site design that defied conventional wisdom. The result is a site that's worlds apart from that of the leading on-line bookstore, Check out Charles Mann's account of the odyssey Powell's took, in " Volume Business."

Whether it's building a Web site or enhancing conventional operations, there are many ways a company can be inspired to take the plunge into sophisticated automation. A savvy CEO, an ambitious competitor, a sudden market demand--any of these can trigger an information-technology orgy. But did it ever occur to you that your bank might force you to go high-tech? As associate editor Joshua Macht explains in " The Accidental Automator," it hadn't occurred to Wayne Reece, CEO of Clarklift, either--until the moment his bank lowered the boom. In the end, the forklift dealership was grateful for the push.

Now, if only I could link up to that bank on my next virtual shopping trip . . .

-- David H. Freedman, Editor