Setting up shop on the Internet is more than building a fancy Web site and hoping people will come and buy. It takes a strong storefront design and navigation designed to make it easy for the customer to buy, as well as back-end processes that will help you manage the business you gain from the Internet.
Before you begin, though, you need to answer two simple questions about whether your products will sell over the Web. The first is whether they can be drop-shipped (i.e. sent via UPS), and secondly, whether they appeal to companies or consumers regardless of geographical location. If the answer to both is "yes," proceed without concern.
For various reasons, some products and services can only be delivered to specific regions. Service offerings might make best sense when the delivery point is within a certain driving distance from your office; federal law restricts some products from being exported; and state laws prohibit sales of certain product types. If your products are restricted to a particular region, you can go forward, but with the understanding that your Web site should clearly state your products or services are only available to customers within a certain geographic region. Otherwise you risk increased operational costs related to requests outside your business area.
The structure of your Web site
When you build your Web site and associated commerce procedures, you'll use one of two structures-static or dynamic. A static Web site is one in which every page of the site is programmed individually by the developer, tying the client to the developer when it comes to changing the site or adding information. To update, you must provide your Web site developer each piece of information or additional collateral so he can program the changes.
The more progressive form of Web site development is "dynamic," in which a database engine drives the site. With this method, an entire catalog of products can be put online via the database, enabling full search capabilities for the potential customer.
One advantage to using a database is that you have full control over adding, deleting and editing all product information-even if an external company has developed the site for you. Updates can be done locally or remotely through browser-based administration screens.
Another advantage is the ability to add to or grow the number of items in the database indefinitely. Each page of your Web site is built "on-the-fly" from the database, making your site "dynamic." You can change the products you want to feature or place on sale with simple on/off toggles in the database.
Dynamic sites are exciting because they provide more than "just a presence" on the Web. A dynamic site will always be a reflection of your current product assortment and allows you to change your presentation to take advantage of changing trends.
Your Web development professional can help you determine which of these structures best fits your business model, product set and budget. He'll also help you factor in other issues, such as page design, how transactions are processed and how much traffic your Web site can handle.
Both static and dynamic Web sites allow for the sale to be transacted securely via credit card or account number. Depending on the technology used to implement the so-called "shopping cart," there may or may not be limitations on the number of transactions or traffic that can be handled.
And don't forget the back end
You and your Web developer now need to determine how to supply and service this new customer base. Established companies may be able to use existing techniques or they may need to tweak their techniques. New Web-only "virtual businesses," however, will need to develop strong, risk-free back-end processes.
Do you have the inventory or can you or your suppliers ramp up quickly to expand your inventory if your Web business takes off? You will need to be prepared to potentially handle an increase in business. Make sure you make a careful estimate of any additional staff and resource requirements.
Set yourself up with a "merchant account number" at your bank so you can accept credit cards. If you can't find a bank that will accept credit cards for Web-only businesses, have your Web developer introduce you to companies that will. Once this account is in place, have your developer enable your site to process and authorize credit card transactions before you actually receive the order. This will decrease your costs of transacting sales.
Open a "Third Party Billing" account with daily pickup service with a shipper. Develop vendor directions on billing procedures for using your account. You also will have to establish shipping rates and a shipping charge chart for purchases.
Keep in mind that the top 25 catalog retailers in the U.S. set their prices according to value of purchase-not according to weight or destination. In fact, shipping fees often will serve as small profit sources.
Customer service also is a major issue with an e-commerce Web site. Most importantly, the site should encourage users to submit questions via e-mail, but you must be prepared to retrieve and answer e-mail promptly. If you are willing to accept inquiries via telephone, be sure to have sufficient staff. Indicate the hours they will be available, because your audience is global, and be sure the customer service employees are both knowledgeable about the products and the functioning of the Web site.
Finding the prospects
Now for the biggest issue: marketing. You can develop the greatest Web site ever, but how do you get people to visit? There are inexpensive and expensive forms of promoting your Web site. As an organization, you need to decide how much of a marketing budget you're willing to commit. Some of the obvious and less-expensive forms of marketing include listing your Web site address on all printed materials, such as letterheads, business cards and invoices. Likewise, be sure to include the Web address in all existing advertising you run in print form.
Have your site registered with available search engines. A number of companies will register your site with up to 500 engines for a small fee. If your site and customer service are good, many free opportunities exist to have other sites and indexes promote your site. For example, the credit card companies are doing a lot of promotion these days to push e-commerce (i.e. www.ezspree.com), and if your site is of good quality and service, you can be included in these promotions for free.
If you have marketing budgets to promote your site, consider online advertising in the form of banner ads running in search engines or industry-specific Web sites. Banner ads are usually sold at a rate of X dollars per 1,000 impressions. You usually can run your campaign as a "Run of Site," buy keywords or advertise in specific sections of a site.
In the end, while the e-commerce situation may seem a lot to worry about, remember: Having an e-commerce-enabled Web site makes your products and services available to a global audience. What price would you ultimately have to pay using any other medium for this kind of exposure?
Steven H. Bass is a co-founder of Compuvisions, Inc., a North Side-based designer and developer of informational and e-commerce Web sites, as well as multimedia CD-ROM applications.