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Frank Remarks: A World of Shopkeepers

What does the proliferation of small e-commerce sites have to do with Taco Bell, Dennis Hopper, Italian-American driving habits, freeway skateboarding, and Mrs. Krumski? Frank Fiore explains.
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I love movies.

As a kid, I would spend almost every Saturday afternoon at the movie theater taking in the double feature. Yes, Virginia, you got TWO movies for the price of your ticket back then—but I'm dating myself. At any rate, I spent so much time in my developing years sitting in the dark that my mom wondered if I'd grow up to be a man or a mushroom!

Anyway, I digress. Being a guy, I enjoy action flicks. One of my favorites is "Demolition Man." The action takes place in the future in the city of San Angeles (San Diego and L.A. having grown into each other and combined after the "Big One").

After Sly Stallone saves the life of the Grand Poohbah, or whatever he is, he and Sandra Bullock—"Oh be still my heart!"—are invited to dinner as a reward. When they're told that dinner would be at Taco Bell, Ms. Bullock coos, claps her hands, and says "Goody! Goody! Taco Bell!" Both Stallone and the viewer are puzzled by her response until we're told that Taco Bell was the winner of the Great Franchising Wars of the early 21st century.

Sort of reminds me of the Internet today.

"Huh," you say? Let me explain.

Someday, in the early part of the 21st century, the e-commerce landscape will either contain tens of thousands—make that hundreds of thousands—of commerce sites, or just a few e-commerce behemoths vying for the attention and dollars of the online consumer. (That's you.)

Some wags believe in the behemoth theory, but I don't buy it. As entertaining as it may be to think that some e-commerce Taco Bell will rule the Internet, it just ain't gonna happen. And that includes the current behemoths like Amazon.com, CDNow, Wal-Mart, and the handful of other large shopping sites.

People like choices. They enjoy their personal freedom to choose (which was the premise of "Demolition Man"), and thinking that they would sheepishly allow one merchant to fill all their needs is whistling in the dark.

So What Will the Future of Online Shopping Look Like?

What was it that Dennis Hopper said? "The '90s are gonna make the '60s look like the '50s"? We're a few years off but the thinking still applies. We've had a resurgence of "retro" these last few years and the Net is adding its own line to Hopper's quote. The Internet will make the recent turn of this century look more like the turn of the last that adds up to a resurgence of the 19th century, but this time on a global scale.

In short, we're becoming a planet of shopkeepers. And that will change the face of e-commerce.

How, you ask?

In several words—Yahoo!, Amazon.com, eBay, affiliate programs, buddy spam, peer-to-peer, person-to-person payments—and improve our neighborhoods in the process! All of this, by the way, for little or no cost to the online shopkeeper.

Let's take them one at a time.

Run with the Big Dogs!

Want to open a store? Yahoo!, Amazon, and eBay are more than willing to help. Yahoo! Store charges as little as $100 per month to list up to 50 items for sale in your store. Like other online store builders, an individual can build his or her entire store with just a web browser. At Amazon's Z Shops, you can maintain as many as 40,000 items for as little as $39.95 a month.

We all know that eBay lets individuals sell just about anything to anyone at auction. But eBay has introduced a new service to those who are using eBay as their own personal selling channel for their business. It's called eBay stores. Currently you can open a store on the Net and list your fixed price and auction items for free until September 1, 2001. After that, it's $9.95 a month.

Peer to Peer and Person-to-Person (P2P): Do-It-Yourself Sales

But why use one of these server-based web sites to sell your wares? You can do it from your own Mac or PC through the magic of peer-to-peer computing.

Peer-to-peer computing was made famous by Napster but now other companies are seeing the advantage of bypassing servers entirely and connecting PCs directly. There's even a business in it for the small mom-and-pop operation that can see the light—Lightshare, that is.

Rather than going through centralized servers from companies like Yahoo!, eBay, or Amazon.com, Lightshare enables individuals or businesses to sell products and information directly from their local computers, without the presence of a web site or a server. Buying, selling, sharing, communicating, searching, and browsing for products and services are offered by those on this e-commerce peer-to-peer network.

But what about payment? Anyone serious about selling on the Net must accept credit cards. The new person-to-person (P2P) payment systems come to the rescue here. Companies such as PayPal and ProPay.com will set up an individual, partnership, or small company to accept credit cards from individuals offering secure payment services between consumers. With these P2P payment services, anyone can become a seller and set up business on the Net.

Let's Affiliate

If warehousing, selling, shipping, and dealing with customer service are headaches you prefer to avoid, joining a merchant affiliate program might fit the bill nicely for you. By joining an affiliate program offered by merchants on the Net, you don't have to deal with the normal hassles of selling.

Affiliate programs have evolved side by side with the online storefront. Amazon.com created the idea a few years ago and now has over 400,000 affiliate web sites selling their books for a piece of the sale. This concept has exploded, and there are now literally thousands of affiliate programs on the Web. All you need to do is market the merchant's product or service on a free web site that you can build at Yahoo! or Excite or NBCi.com or About.com, and the merchant will do the rest.

Can You Say Buddy Spam?

And you don't even need to have a web site to sell things through an affiliate program. How? Use a Be Free service called B-INTOUCH, which gives anyone with an email address the ability to market and sell merchandise on the Web.

Here's how it works.

Barnes and Noble was the first to offer Be Free's service. It's called—what else—myBarnes and Noble. You go to the B&N site, sign up for the program and get a special URL that identifies you. You then put that URL in every email message you send from now to the end of the world telling your friends and family (and anyone else you can think of) that if they buy books from your Barnes and Noble URL they'll help you finance your child's education, buy that new boat you were lusting after, or get a faster computer and a faster connection to send out more email.

The result? You get a small commission on what you're hawking when your friends and family buy. Slick, huh? Can you say "Buddy Spam," boys and girls?

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