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Published on August 16, 1999

E-COMMERCE WON'T DOMINATE ANYTIME SOON

I used to hear a lot of people talk about the evil empire of Bill Gates and how Microsoft was going to take over the world. In fact, there is an antitrust case against Microsoft going on today in Washington on just that issue. But lately, the focus has shifted from the computer to the Internet. And to electronic commerce, however you would like to define that activity.

Many people are suggesting that the Internet and e-commerce are going to take over the economic system of the United States, if not the world. None of us will be able to continue to do business the way we do it today, and if we don't adapt to the new world, we will be crushed by the onslaught of e-commerce.

I have no doubt we are going to see a lot of catalogs using the Internet for all sorts of order entry. I am convinced they will not replace the billions of catalogs that you and I receive every year from all sorts of companies that want to sell us something with an 800 number and a credit card.

Electronic commerce probably will be just another way of buying stuff in addition to the way you are doing it today.

Folks are kidding themselves if they think the shopping mall, the car dealership and the neighborhood stores will go away and be replaced by some Internet system that will be easy and seamless for the entire world to use. It isn't going to be that universal.

Make no mistake, e-commerce is going to change our lives, but only if we want it to. Many of us may well decide to continue to do what we're doing now.

For many others, e-commerce will be a wonderful alternative to traditional shopping and traditional buying, and those folks will embrace the Internet and all its opportunities.

But my guess is those folks are going to be in the minority for quite a while—perhaps forever. And chances are they will mix and use all sorts of methods for shopping, depending on what works for them at that moment.

Still, there are hundreds of millions of us. If only a small percentage use e-commerce, that still will be millions of customers.

Many businesses will have to duplicate what they are doing today with yet another system for these customers. It may only add to their costs and not give them any new customers.

This will all shake out in the near future. It will be fascinating to watch how it all develops.

Mr. Crain is chairman of Crain Communications Inc.

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