TAKE A LESSON FROM THE SUPERMARKET CHAINS

TAKE A LESSON FROM THE SUPERMARKET CHAINS

A certain shipping line called me a couple of Sundays ago (no prizes for guessing the company name). The excited voice at the other end of the telephone line asked if I had seen the company's new Web site, and suggested I take a look-see if I had not. ''It's a vast improvement'' over the last one, he claimed.

So I took a look. And it's quite impressive. But the call also prompted some deeper questions on the mysteries of the Internet - such as whether the container-shipping world is really ready for all this high technology, and whether it really understands how a couple of clicks on an icon can launch a staunch conservative into the realms of the future.Yes, it is high technology, and in the maritime world we always seem to be behind everyone else. While people in the general public have been able to buy their household needs online for years in some countries, it is only recently that the Internet has made its mark on the shipping business.

My Sunday caller's excitement obviously came from the launching of his stylish new Web site, which portrayed his company to the best. But only time will tell what it does for the customer or the potential customers.

Forget for a moment the glitzy Web-site backdrops of front pages, the professionally styled aerial shots of container ships carrying their owner's cargoes and flying the flag of the owner's homeland. Forget, too, the magic icons that tell the passing viewer that the next ship leaving Hong Kong arrives in Felixstowe 28 days later.

The big supermarket chains not only have Web Sites, but they also take orders from their customers and mostly manage to deliver the right goods to the right household (even in Britain). Shouldn't the shipping industry have progressed a little beyond nice Web sites with nice pictures?

No disrespect is meant to my Sunday caller, but what's out there at the moment on the shipping sector of cyberspace doesn't exactly get me excited.

We live a fast world. Web sites are meant to be fast sources of information and to provide capabilities for fast-minded shippers to ship goods with fast-minded carriers.

As an existing customer of a shipping line, you already know what to expect. But as a potential customer, you're not going to want to wade through pages of photographs of ships and ports, company logos and more to get what you want: a quote on your cargo, and getting it shipped as quick as possible at a reasonable rate.

In Asia, most carriers have the philosophy that you need to portray the company first and get the business afterwards. Cosco, Hanjin, Hyundai, Cho Yang, all have this approach. Let's tell the viewer who we are before we snap up the contracts, it goes.

Sure, it works sometimes. But there is a tremendous difference between the thinking in the East and that in, for example, Europe. It's strange, because all these companies have regional headquarters in countries like Germany and Britain, where the working populace is not completely ignorant of the Web.

In Britain we understand the Internet, though we are basically scared of it. We don't have the whiz-kids on hand to construct sites, and we lack the expertise to understand how it can benefit our business.

In America it's a different story, one that doesn't need relating.

So what does the shipping-line Web site need to provide the customer, potential or existing? According to most lines, it's simple. Cargo tracking is highly relevant. Customers need to know the whereabouts of their goods, and, while site security is important, so is the ease of getting that information.

The capability for online booking is important - that wonderful icon click that means your container is booked and heading for its destination. But bills of lading still need handwritten signatures and reams of paperwork and clerical staff to oversee this function.

Shipping schedules are also important. I am told by some customers that these are vital to the whole Net product. A word of warning, though: Shipping schedules mean nothing unless they are updated frequently. After all, anyone can run off a database listing of what is expected, rather than what will actually happen.

In a world of perfection, all these features and many more will be provided by the individual Web site. In reality, we are a long way short of reaching the supermarket chains' level.

The industry's new Web world is not running in tune with the real container-shipping needs (or perhaps it's the other way around). Perhaps the industry is trying its best, but it remains split between what it wants, what it needs and what it can get.

While shipping continues its never-ending whining about rates and capacity and competition, and more, wouldn't it be nice for once to adopt a more positive mode? Wouldn't it be nice for the providers to provide a little more, given the tools they have?

The Internet is here to stay. It doesn't need fancy pictures of ships and outdated shipping schedules to make it work. You want to make money? Then take a look at how others do it. Learn from the supermarket chains.

And hire the staffers who can make it work.