If you read the research reports, category X will rise in sales from $2 million this year to $500 million in a few years. It doesn't really matter what X is, because all the reports are almost identical.
In reality, the only products that are definitely selling well over the Internet are books and music. But if you sell something else, does this mean you can't profit from the Web?
Consider Town & Country Log Homes. Log homes aren't something you'd readily equate with Internet sales, yet the company garners 92 percent of all first contact with customers through its Web site.
"One of the things that makes it work so well is that we have such a narrow niche," says Dave Reed, vice president and marketing director for Town & Country. "We can target our customers very easily. Our customers are people who are seeking log homes and are looking for a specific thing. They are seldom just looking for a home."
In the early '90s, niche publications, color brochures and catalogs were the company's main means of showing the product.
"We decided in '94 or '95 to produce a CD-ROM as an adjunct to or a replacement for the brochure because of the economies," says Reed.
The company could produce a CD with 700 pages of plans and pictures for 65 cents each, as opposed to a 100-page plan book for $10 to $12 each.
"Our Web site really flowed along with that technology," Reed says. "As we advanced electronically, it made sense to sell on the Web because the people interested in our products were likely to have a CD player, Web access and were likely to use it.
"Our site evolved with a combination of some technical advances, along with some general updating. That's the nature of the difference between a site and a printed piece. The site is more like a fluid liquid document; there's always fine tuning. We get feedback from customers and visitors, and new photography gets online much faster. It's as much a communication tool as advertising, per se."
The company was careful in its selection of which technology to use. When virtual photos, which allow the viewer to pan 360 degrees, became available, Town & Country waited.
"We waited quite awhile until the technology got to a better resolution," says Reed. "In the earlier versions, the quality just wasn't there, and that wasn't a direct fit for us. We try to stay away from whiz-bang items just for the sake of saying it's cool. We look at is as, "How will this help the customer get more information about our product?"
The site URL is listed on every printed document the company has, from ads to business cards, to checks and invoices. It also does keyword advertising on a search engine, so when someone types in a search for "log homes" or "cedar homes," its banner comes up.
Of the 92 percent who find the company through the Web, about half found the site through printed materials or shows. The other half comes from links or Web searches.
"There are a number of companies in this business, and you have to do these things just to be ahead of the competition," says Reed. "If you don't do it, someone else will. The real key is to have a narrow niche product. You can do this cost effectively.
"I've listened to people throw around numbers -- like you need $10,000 to have an effective site. In five years, we don't have $10,000 in our site. You can have a quality site on a minimal budget that works, if you are thoughtful about it." How to reach: Town & Country, www.cedarhomes.com
Todd Shryock (email@example.com) is SBN's special reports editor.