Christmas is the most important time of year for the home shopping industry with an estimated 25% of total annual spending expected to be completed over the festive season.
As many as seven million shoppers will shop online this Christmas - two million more than last year. Moreover, retail analyst Verdict estimates that the home shopping market will have 15 million users, spending £14bn, by 2006.
The industry clearly has great growth potential and central to reaching these targets will be the continued role of the IT manager.
Traditionally, IT managers have focused their attention on helping retailers to overcome two of their biggest hurdles: credit card security and ease of navigation around the Web site.
In simple terms, they have focused on the front-end and left the operational manager to overcome fulfilment issues at the back-end.
Much progress has been made in these areas and recent research suggests that 40% of retailers now believe that consumers regard the risk of online payment as equal to using a credit card elsewhere.
In line with this, retailers have shifted their focus away from the front-end with 70% of e-tailers now regarding delivery as the single most important factor influencing the future growth of the home shopping market.
This represents a pat on the back for IT managers but, with Christmas just around the corner, now is not the time for them to put their feet up and enjoy the festive season. In fact, if anything, their job is about to become increasingly significant.
Problems at the front-end may have been largely dealt with, but the increased importance of fulfilment presents an even bigger challenge. As consumers demand greater flexibility in the delivery of goods, the future success of home shopping is dependent on the ability of the IT manager to integrate front-end and back-end systems into a seamless chain.
At present, retailers can offer time windows for deliveries, evening deliveries or delivery to the post office of the consumer's choice. This gives home shoppers more freedom as they are not tied to waiting at home once their goods have been ordered and they can dictate when and where they receive their goods. However, these crucial options are useless to the consumer if their preferred options are not presented on the Web site at the point of order.
IT managers now, more than ever, have the responsibility of providing consumers with the opportunity to choose from a range of delivery options. This is vital to both attract and keep customers.
By building simple options into the Web site, the IT manager will give customers the option to pick and choose how and when they would like their goods delivered.
By offering customers more choice, retailers can drive consumer loyalty by recording their preferred delivery choice and storing it for next time they go on the site. Systems such as these move online shopping to a new customer-friendly level, building loyalty and improving customer satisfaction with a previously "faceless" shopping medium.
As we head towards Christmas, the next few weeks will be instructive for the future development of the home shopping industry and will provide an indication of just how successful IT managers and retailers have been in developing integrated systems which satisfy the demands of the ever exacting consumer.
David Taylor is managing director of home shopping at Consignia