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A Commerce Carol  

I have endeavoured in this Ghostly spoof of a little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their businesses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Your faithful Friend and Servant,
The Grok
December, 2000

(With all due respects and a wink to the spirit of C. Dickens)

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See the GROK at the e-commerce summit in Italy 10/03/2001 - 10/05/2001

Best of 2000: WINNER -
Grok Dot Com

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The Grok was from Mars. There was no doubt whatever about that. His arrival was duly noted and registered by the various authorities at NASA and the governmental agencies associated with Immigration and Naturalization. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.

Self-styled e-commerce guru Ebenezer Marketer followed news of The Grok's arrival. He read the Martian decided to hook up with Future Now, a consultancy passionately advocating the application of traditional offline sales techniques to the wild, wooly and entirely new frontiers of commerce on The Internet. "Traditional sales techniques? Bah-humbug!" Marketer blathered as he proceeded to overwhelm his staff with demands to devise many new and improved forms of e-mail, banner advertising and newsletter campaigns, and to research the latest bleeding-edge technological innovations.

One December day, one of E. Marketer's clients called on him.

"Yes, Tiny Tom? What can I do for you?" Marketer continued at his calculations, paying little real attention to his client.

"Excuse me for bothering you, Sir Guru, but the wife freshly made these Christmas cookies. The family's quite amazed with our Stick Shoppe being on The Internet and all. To think our sticks, canes, walking supports and umbrellas can now be available to anyone anywhere." Then his voice trailed off, “Even though it’s nearly paupered us so far …”

E. Marketer waved a casual hand at Tiny Tom, ignoring his last comment and indicating where he might place the plate of cookies. "And so they should be amazed! And imagine how much more amazed they'll be when we add this new layer of technology to your website." He turned to his computer, called up a program and demonstrated an animation of an umbrella that opened and pirouetted on the screen. "This is just a small part of what we have in mind for your online 3-D store. Next best thing to being there, Tom," he said with the certainty of an astronomer predicting the sun will rise.

"Well … yes. That would certainly be … novel. Can't say as I've seen anything like it." Tom hesitated, "But that's going to cost, isn't it?"

"Entertainment, Tom. That's what these savvy online shoppers crave. Sure, it's going to cost something up front. But you'll recover that and more in no time when the profits start rolling in like never before. You'll see."

"Well, it's about those profits, now that you mention it. I don't think we've turned one yet. Sales just don't seem to be what they ought to be, and I keep getting the feeling I ought to be selling these folks, helping them along … like I'd do in my real store. And with my current closing ratios, I can't see how I'm going to manage paying for this 'new layer of technology'. There's little enough now, I'm not even sure I'll be able to bring home a Christmas turkey for the missus."

"Patience, Tom. Traffic is the key. And the more cool stuff you show people, the more traffic you’ll get, don’t you see? That’s why you’re lucky to have an expert like me helping you. Besides, you can't 'sell' people on the web … you've got to lure them." He dragged out the word 'lure' as if he were trolling for dupes. "I'll have the design boys work up that 3-D store concept, and we'll have it on the site by end of the week. Then you can sit back, put your feet up and watch the money roll in." Marketer cut short any further discussion by clapping Tiny Tom on the shoulder and escorting him out the door. As he returned to his calculations of click-through rates, he shook his head and muttered again, "Sales techniques? Bah-humbug."

That night, E. Marketer climbed into bed with a mug of warm milk and the latest issue of The Annals of Advertising, which contained an article on targeting banner ads so they reached the right eyeballs. During a passage about incorporating Flash, he drifted off to sleep.

E. Marketer woke suddenly to find a short, green creature with five eyeballs tapping him on the arm.

"Hey dude!" His smile reached all the way out to where his ears would have been if he had any.

E. Marketer blinked. "I know you from somewhere." He blinked and looked again. "You're that Grok thing from Mars."

"Actually, just now I'm the Spirit of Commerce Past. I've got some cool stuff to show you." The Spirit held out his hand.

"I've got a busy day tomorrow. Call my secretary and schedule an appointment, would you? Maybe we can do lunch." E. Marketer rolled over dismissively.

"Hey!" The Spirit sounded irreverently cheerful. "The fun's just starting, Ebbie. Let's go." The Spirit took E. Marketer's arm and led him into an ethereal mist.

"Where are we?" E. Marketer pinched himself to make certain he was awake.

"We are in the past, Eb. I'm here to show you what commerce has always been about." And with that, the Spirit escorted E. Marketer through a history of sales. They witnessed the early practice of barter, the specialization of vendors, the emergence of a money economy. The Spirit toured E. Marketer through the development of centralized markets, then retail stores, road shows, door-to-door sales, direct mail and telemarketing. The Spirit pointed out the various technological advances along the way that aided seller-buyer communications, from smoke signals and lights to the telegraph, telephone, television, fax and finally, the personal computer.

Every now and then, the Spirit stopped so E. Marketer could overhear conversations. He listened to customers asking lots of questions that salespeople happily answered. He saw the smiles on the faces of buyers as they left with parcels in hand, feeling confident of their purchases. Along the way, the Spirit pointed out dynamic examples of the critical five steps that comprise the sales process.

They returned to E. Marketer's bedroom. Crossing his arms and tapping his toe on the carpet, he frowned at the Spirit. "So what was all that supposed to be about?"

"People, Eb. That's what commerce is all about." The Spirit smiled broadly. " I know it's strange, but even after all those years, humans still cling to their basic ways of thinking about and doing things. They've got needs, Ebbie. They want to buy, and they want to be sold. They like getting nose-to-nose; they want to feel there's an understanding human somewhere on the other end of the exchange. They want information, persuading, reassurance. They want to trust the dude they buy from."

E. Marketer looked unimpressed. "Yeah? Well, it's a brave new world out there. The Internet has changed everything. It's revolutionized the way we do business. People will cope."

The Grok rolled three of his five eyes. "Did you notice something real important while I was giving you the Grand Tour? No matter what technological advance was wowing the folks, successful business still sold to their customers in the same way. Wake up, Ebbie. Technology is only the medium; it’s not the message. It never was. Didn’t I just show you that? "

"Right. So, can I go back to bed now? As I said, tomorrow's a busy day."

"Sure. But I gotta warn you, the show's just getting underway, Eb. I will be followed by yet another Spirit." And with that, the Spirit vanished.

Joylessly, E. Marketer crawled back into bed and dragged the covers over his head. It seemed he had just got to sleep when he felt another tapping on his arm. He opened his eyes and saw the Same creature frowning over him.

"You again?"

"Nope. Different dude. I'm the Spirit of Commerce Present."

"And I suppose you're going to take me somewhere." E. Marketer made no effort to conceal his exasperation. The Spirit nodded without brightening his own irritated expression. E. Marketer sighed heavily, heaved himself out of bed and the Spirit led him once more into the ethereal mist.

"I'm here to show you what's going on around you right now, E. Marketer. I'm going to show you the real effects of what you do, and what you don’t do." The Spirit led him invisibly to many homes, where Marketer watched people trying to make online purchases. He watched a lady quit because she couldn't read the tiny type, a man give up because he couldn't figure out where he was supposed to go next. There was a man who tried to download a special plug-in to view a particular webpage, but it crashed his system. Some folks quit because they didn't want to give their credit card information. Others quit because they couldn't find what they were looking for. A whole lot of folks quit because they just got tired of waiting for pages to load, a bunch more bailed out because they couldn’t get help when they needed it, and still more left because the whole thing just didn’t feel like something they could trust. Amazingly, most people never got past the home page, and even when they did struggle through, nobody seemed particularly delighted about this brave new way of shopping. In all, the Spirit took E. Marketer to 100 homes that night, but they witnessed only 2 completed purchases.

The Spirit returned E. Marketer to his bedroom.

"Two out of a hundred. Hoo boy. You’ve really got ‘em concerned. Excuse me for pointing out the obvious, but you're not just failing to convert eyeballs, you're ticking people off. They want to shop and buy, but instead of making it easy you're making it almost impossible. And by the way, know what the typical closing rate is in the offline world? Fifty out of a hundred. Customers don't want your froo-froo, and they are not going to tolerate your techno-myopia, your careless disregard of their basic human needs. They'll go to your competitors' websites and if that fails, they'll go back to the real world where business people know how to sell in a way that makes them feel comfortable, valued, even delighted."

E. Marketer began to look a little shaken. The Green Spirit continued urgently, "Those folks don't come back. Not only do they not come back, but they tell lots of other folks about their crummy experience. I don't need to tell you those folks don't even bother coming in the first place. And how long do you think your clients are gonna keep paying you big bucks before they get wise to the fact their closing rates never budge?

E. Marketers lower lip started to tremble. “Tell me, Spirit, is there any hope, or is it all lost?”

“There's a lot of stuff you could be doing that would make much better use of your clients' money. There's lots of information about how people like being sold. As a matter of fact, there's even an archive that would help you turn this situation around! I'll be happy to show you the link. Click here."

Mr. Marketer looked like a dog left out in the rain. The Spirit patted him on the head. "Well, that's my bit for the night. Another Spirit's gonna be along a little later."

E. Marketer's eyes widened and he shook his head, "I don't think I'm going to care much for yet another Spirit."

"Oh, he's a grim one, alright." And with that, the Spirit vanished.

E. Marketer lay fitfully in his bed, watching the digital minutes flash past, until he felt a chill come over his bedroom. Looking up, he beheld another short, green creature, this time wearing a resigned, stony and merciless expression.

"Don't tell me,” E. Marketer's voice shook. “You're the Spirit of Commerce to Come, right?"

The Green Spirit simply nodded, extended his cold, green hand, and led a quivering Marketer into the ethereal mist.

Marketer found himself in a strange media room, one wall of which was a bank of television screens broadcasting news reports. As the two stood in the center of this room, strips of paper bearing headlines fluttered down on them like a chilly autumn fall of leaves. Marketer picked up several and read them:

Tiny Tom's Stick Shoppe Another Casualty
Dot-coms Become Dot-bombs: An Exponential Trajectory of Failure
Is the Internet Dead?
Investors Bail Out Faster Than Shopping Carts Are Abandoned

Marketer shook his head and looked forlornly at the Spirit. Gradually, the announcements from the banks of televisions penetrated his conscious:

"The firm managed by E. Marketer, the last holdout in the promotion of e-commerce as the new new thing, has gone belly up. Ebenezer Marketer had long been a staunch supporter of the glamour of technology and its power to overcome the basics of human interaction in general and selling in particular. Our reporter on the scene tells us Marketer is, at this very moment, standing on the precipice of his office building, overcome with the realization his perspective was fatally flawed."

E. Marketer turned a whiter shade of pale. “That guy on the ledge. That’s, that’s … ME.” The Spirit simply nodded and pointed from the bank of television screens to Marketer, and back again.

"No, Spirit! Oh no, no!" he cried. " This can't be written in stone. Oh, tell me there's a different future possible, a happier future, one I have a hand in helping to create and not destroy."

The Green Spirit said nothing. Slowly, silently, ominously, his form vanished. The ethereal mist fell away and E. Marketer found himself standing on the carpet of his bedroom.

TO BE CONTINUED...

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GROK is taken from the landmark novel "Stranger in a Strange Land", by Robert A. Heinlein. It is a Martian word that implies the presence of intimate and exhaustive knowledge and understanding. Our "GROK" is a keen observer of the world around him and he takes a particular interest in the World Wide Web. The folks at Future Now like him a lot because he's taught them that "sometimes the price of clarity is the risk of insult."

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