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In e-biz, one size (blush!) does not fit all

By Stan Gibson, PC Week An e-tailer specializing in commodities that are embarrassing topurchase has got to have a strong future. Covering e-business strategies is hard, time-consuming and, above all, highly serious work.

By Stan Gibson, PC Week

An e-tailer specializing in commodities that are embarrassing to purchase has got to have a strong future.

Covering e-business strategies is hard, time-consuming and, above all, highly serious work. But it's not all humorless drudgery. Sometimes even the driest conferences turn up items of levity.

At a recent press luncheon concerning a software vendor's move into the ASP market, I sat next to a dot-com entrepreneur whose mission it is to be the leading online vendor of condoms in Europe. That in itself isn't funny -- most of us have come to accept that condoms are serious business. And I'm sure Europeans from all walks of life have need of them.

But I couldn't help asking this gentleman, Evret Jan Hoijtink, CIO at PharmaPlaza.com, why selling these items online made any sense at all, since you can hardly go into any store nowadays that doesn't have aisles and aisles and racks and racks of condoms for sale. "Confidentiality" was the answer.

Why so, I asked, since nowadays we are very open about these things.

"It's very embarrassing for some people to ask for the small size," was Mr. Hoijtink's answer.

I had to admit that I could see his point, although I was relieved to realize that it was something that I had never personally done. And there are issues about latex allergies and more. Customers need to be enlightened with all the facts in order to make an informed choice.

"We have plenty of content on our site to educate the purchaser about the best condom for their needs," Mr. Hoijtink continued. "For example, gay people should not use condoms designed for heterosexual use."

I have to admit I've led a somewhat sheltered life and, frankly, I want to keep it that way. With women present at the table, discretion got the best of my reporter's instincts, and I let the matter drop.

A light bulb just went on

But Mr. Hoijtink is clearly onto something. An e-tailer specializing in commodities that are embarrassing to purchase has got to have a strong future -- and, in fact, the many drug e-tailers are counting on this as a huge selling point. At least half the items sold in drugstores cause their purchasers at least some embarrassment. But there are many more things than legal drugs that might cause the purchaser to turn red-faced or sheepish. Many of these are already online or soon will be. To think of a few: orthopedic shoes, minivans, Barry Manilow tickets, bulky cell phones, velvet art and size XX clothing are a start.

Further, purchasing neckwear of any kind will brand you indelibly as a non-Internet person (there can be no greater mark of shame). There have got to be some people out there who really long to buy a sharp necktie -- or maybe a bow tie -- but haven't got the courage.

And that doesn't even encompass the huge category of declasse foods, such as Cheez-Whiz, Spam, and wine for under $3 per bottle. Oh, the humiliation of having some stranger at the check-out station run any of those past the scanner!

If you sense a business plan in the formative stages here, you're right. I've checked. Embarrassment.com is already spoken for. I'm working up the gumption to call right now to see if it's for sale, even though some complete stranger will know that I want to build a Web site called www.embarrassment.com and I didn't even think of it first.

I just don't know if I can stand that.

Don't bother trying humiliation.com. It's owned by a porn site. Is discretion coming back? Are we headed toward a new Victorian age of propriety? Let us know at TalkBack.