Where IBM believes e-tailers can get more bang for their buck

Though IBM's Bart Lautenbach says e-tailers have made a lot of progress, he says e-business is still in its infancy.

Lautenbach, who is director of IBM Websphere Commerce, says there are still segments of e-business that have not been mastered. Among those, searching online stores.

He says that today's search experience leaves a lot to be desired. "When you go into a bookstore, you don't go straight up to the counter and ask for the book you're looking for," he says. "Yet, when you go to an online store, you head right for the search engine."

This is because sites do a poor job of narrowing down the category of things customers are looking for, he says.

Lautenbach points to wine stores as an example where e-tailers can take advantage of next-generation search tools. He says customers should immediately be able to deselect red wines if they are interested in white wines. Then they should be able to further hone in by deselecting everything that is not a particular white wine. And so on. He says this would resemble the experience you get walking down the aisles at a wine store.

"How can we mask the catalog data so that your view is limited by your own selection?" Lautenbach asks. "These kinds of deep technologies get people from browsing to buying."

"If you help them cognitively walk through the store, then you can get them to buy something," he adds.

Another area where Web business needs to grow, he says, is in the order management systems.

A few years ago, companies creating an online presence would allow each department or "brand" to build their own order management systems. As they began to merge, these order management systems stayed separate, forcing IT organizations to manage multiple systems with a multitude of interfaces. In fact, he says AMR Research at one time stated that organizations had as many as five order management systems running at the same time.

Lautenbach says that companies must now consolidate these systems into one central database for efficiency and better customer service. Lines of business will still be able to create their own interface to call centers, Web sites or other modes of customer interaction, but customer and order information can be stored in one locale. This will give tremendous power to Web businesses, he says, enabling them to get more bang for their IT resource buck.

"This is a big idea," he says. "You're starting to hear more about it and it's an idea that I think has legs."

He adds: "There is no need for two catalogs when you're simply moving between call centers and Web sites." Both, he says, should be able to draw from the same information.

Lautenbach credits government for making strides in this area as they've allowed different agencies to build off of a central infrastructure, giving customers a different look and feel without taxing the IT folks.

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