Cue the Sun: Dawning of E-Commerce

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When the takeout line of a new movie is popularized before
the film is released, you know that it's a winner. "Cue the sun," from the
surreal, media-centric The Truman Show, is the best script line since Jerry
Maguire
's "Show me the money!" Appropriately, it is uttered as the
video-idealized world and the real world of title character Truman Burbank confront one
another.

The "televisionary" movie, appropriately, takes
for granted a broadband world where an entire channel has been dedicated to Truman's
life for 30 years. Among the film's delightful convergences are the integrated
product placements, eventually identified as the financial sustenance of the
mega-production.

Contrary to today's floundering infomercial business
or wandering online shopping ventures, Truman's sales pitches are front and
center. His clients push him up against a featured ad poster every day on his way to work;
his best buddy always carries a six-pack of beer (label clearly visible); and his wife
periodically extols a hot-chocolate drink or a new kitchen utensil. The movie's charm
is that these satiric marketing moments are so cleverly handled that you wish there were
more.

As we learn later, operators are standing by to take orders
for these products, as well as for all of the clothes, cars, props and other merchandise
seen on Truman's round-the-clock channel.

Contrast this integrated-merchandising vision with the
electronic-commerce crusade that Web promoters are currently pushing. Despite promising
predictions and creative wizardry (online contests and blatant banner ads), e-commerce is
still largely a pull-oriented business.

Forecasts envision that interactive shopping will become a
$60 billion enterprise (or maybe $300 billion, if you favor the rosiest prognosticators)
within five years -- up from about $1 billion or $6 billion today (again, depending on
whom you believe).

The poster-child success stories of e-commerce (Amazon.com,
Dell Computer, Travelocity and PC Flowers) demonstrate that a handful of commodity
products can be peddled via narrowband circuits. In some cases, significant competitors
and rival products have quickly emerged in the same categories.

For example, Microsoft's Expedia and many
airline/travel-agency ventures are nipping at AMR's Travelocity. In the book sector,
there are growth spurts at BarnesAndNoble.com and, recently, at SpeedServe.com -- a book,
video and game seller backed by Ingram, the wholesaler that also happens to supply many of
the competing online book merchants.

This will make for an interesting case study in
"disintermediation."

All of these early cyber-selling ventures are reminders
that e-commerce is not just another storefront, despite what IBM's
"e-business" campaign may suggest. Selected catalog merchants and automakers
have found niches online, but their industries as a whole show mixed feelings about
cannibalizing their existing marketing methods via e-commerce.

More important, the nascent e-shopping business continues
to experiment with online alternatives -- some of which are reinventing the ways that
customers shop. Thanks to electronic agents that can search for the right product or price
on behalf of a shopper, a new opportunity is being defined. In the business-to-business
sector especially, prospective customers are posting requests-for-bids on industry-focused
Web sites, such as those run by VerticalNet.

This kind of retail matchmaking redefines shopping. It has
exciting prospects as it comes to the broadband platform. In the consumer realm, online
auctions are hot: More than 100 such specialized bidding ventures are available online
today, and other, unconventional marketing milieus are being developed to take advantage
of real-time interactivity, pricing and availability.

Broadband technology can make these services even more
attractive and revitalize the shopping channels, adding along the way another new revenue
stream for network operators. Eventually, Truman-like capacity to buy what you see
on any show may be viable.

There is a dark side to integrating sales and content, and
it strikes at the heart of the "church-state" separation that many traditional
media hold so dear. Even the Federal Trade Commission's bureau that examines
advertising claims is concerned: After all, it is mandated to pursue commercials that make
false claims or merchants that don't fulfill their end of sales agreements. If ads
are integrated with editorial or entertainment content, the feds could find themselves
stepping on First Amendment or free-press-rights issues where they don't want to be.
That's a reality that didn't have to be dealt with in The Truman Show's
messianic denouement, with its "creator" revelation akin to that of the great
and powerful Oz. Its thought-provoking possibilities linger on, however, at the
rosy-fingered dawn of broadband e-commerce, complete with digital dollars and
cyber-convenience.

Cue the sun.

I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen especially admired Truman
Burbank's sartorial choices -- always signs of a smart shopper.

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