A regular column for the fish and seafood industry appearing in
The Garden State Seafood Association newsletter
October 11, 1999
Link to GSSA page
Business being done on the internet, now referred to as e-commerce, is increasing exponentially. While a few years ago the primary product sold via the internet was pornography (and, interestingly enough, the on-line pornography industry is being looked at as a model for successful e-commerce – see the NY Times e-commerce web pages linked below), today everything from real estate purchases through automobile leasing to travel arrangements and weekly food shopping can be done on line. And a growing amount of electronic transactions are business to business rather than business to consumer.
What does e-commerce have to offer that shopping “in person” doesn’t? First, and most obvious, is convenience. If you haven’t done any comparison shopping on line, you have no idea how easy it can be to compare product A to product B, or to compare the price of the same product from vendor X and vendor Y. A few mouse clicks and you’ve avoided what can be hours of shopping time. Then there’s – at least for now – lower prices. Today e-commerce sites are more intent on building up their customer bases than they are on making a profit on the goods or services they are selling. it’s not too difficult to find particular products offered on the web for less than their retail cost. And finally, the internet is a potential pipeline into the homes or offices of the most affluent strata of society. Generally the people with disposable income buy computers and the people with free time use them. Depending on the products being offered, this can either be an incentive to focus on or to ignore the internet as a sales device.
The downside is that the customer doesn’t have a chance to actually see/hold/test the product before purchasing it and can’t take it home immediately afterwards (but with overnight delivery readily and reasonably available, this is becoming less of a concern with many shoppers). Also, with the explosive growth in e-commerce there’s expected to be a corresponding growth in various web-related scams. Finally, many people are still hesitant to entrust personal financial information, credit card numbers, etc. to cyberspace.
So where might seafood businesses fit into all of this? From a business to business perspective, it’s much easier to keep in touch with suppliers and markets all over the world than it was a few short years ago. Government and private web sites track prices and monitor supplies. Email allows suppliers on one side of the world to reach potential customers on the other instantly, and to do it at far less cost per contact than a phone call or fax. Web sites can offer more information about products than any other medium, and that information can be up-to-the-minute (a critical issue with perishable products like fresh seafood). A site promoting a company’s product can be accessible to buyers all over the world, and if the site is properly designed and registered with the right search engines, many of those buyers will access it. And most recently, fully integrated trading exchanges have been developed on the internet for ordering, distribution management and delivery for fresh seafood. Like many other successful internet-based businesses, you can find what you’re looking for, purchase it and make all the necessary arrangements to have it delivered in one stop. If it is done right, using the internet can give a small seafood business an opportunity to compete for domestic and international customers with the big guys.
From business to consumer it might be a little more difficult to carve out a seafood niche. Handling costs and restricted shelf life would seem to rule out shipping anything but the most valuable products, but a significant market for premium fresh meats and fowl already exists, so it is possible. Smoked seafood, not requiring as careful handling as fresh product, seems particularly well suited to e-commerce, as do some shellfish.
While not strictly a form of e-commerce, the promotional capabilities of the internet could also play an important role in the success of seafood businesses. If used correctly the internet is an extremely effective tool for getting particular messages to targeted audiences. Newsgroups, list servers and chat rooms that focus on food, fishing, the oceans or the environment exist by the hundreds. Each of these is frequented by anywhere from dozens up to thousands of potential “customers” for whatever messages can be convincingly presented to them. For example, a thread on the role that commercial fishing has played in developing the character and the economy of coastal communities, if it was in the right place on the web, could easily generate grass roots support for the seafood industry. Listing events like dock tours and fleet blessings with tourist-oriented sites could be an effective way of selling the fishing industry to the people, and one that we should be taking more advantage of. Just about anyone involved in acquainting members of the public with any aspects of New Jersey’s fishing industry is immediately impressed with the fact that few people know that the Garden State has any commercial fishing ports or any commercial fishermen. There’s a tremendous market out there, not for product but for political support.
Are there any easy answers to “what can the internet do to improve my business?” Probably not, but it’s probably worth the investment of some of your time to consider the question.
Related (or just plain interesting) sites:
Nils E. Stolpe