It’s Not Too Late to Join the E-Frontier

With upwards of $9 billion (US$) in sales expected over the Internet this holiday season, many businesses without Web sites are wondering if they’ve missed the boat.

Not necessarily. Although it may be tricky to get a site up and running in time to cash in on this year’s holiday shopping bonanza, the online buying momentum built by the holiday rush is likely to carry over into 2000. A number of small and independently owned businesses may be the beneficiaries of e-commerce activity generated by strong holiday sales.

Some industry observers believe that savvy offline businesses could ride the coattails of the Christmas rush by establishing their own Web presence shortly after the holidays. The biggest advantage they will have is the knowledge of what worked and what didn’t work for businesses that were up and running for the rush. The following are some suggestions:

Strong Business Plan

While an offline business and its online counterpart are closely related, the online version needs to be treated as any new venture would be. Develop a business plan with definite marketing and sales goals, and monitor them at pre-determined intervals. Small business owners who never had an original business plan should take this opportunity to create one. After the site is up and running and routinely doing business, it may be wise to develop a comprehensive business plan for both online and offline arms of the business.

Location, Location, Location

The best sites are those with a distinctive look and feel and a good “location.” The site must be secure and have access to site-traffic analysis tools, e-mail and anything else that encourages business-to-consumer interaction. The one great lesson of this year’s e-commerce boom has been that the necessity of establishing relationships with customers is a key to building consumer loyalty.

Eye Candy

Sites that are the most visually appealing will likely attract the most attention. Online shoppers primarily depend on their sense of sight, as they cannot touch, smell or taste the merchandise. Compelling graphics, minimal but informative copy, and an easy-to-follow layout are critical. An e-tailer should be aware of the fact that the goal is to get the user to bookmark their site and become a “regular.” A competent, creative and progressive Web designer is key to this equation.

Ease Of Use

Everything the consumer does at your site must be as easy as possible. Sites can benefit by making the online shopping experience fun for visitors. Just like in the brick-and-mortar world, some consumers view shopping as a leisurely, relaxing experience. If it becomes stressful or requires long waits, the next sound you’ll hear will be the user’s departing click.

Self-Promotion

Be your own best promoter. The sites that are consistently experiencing high traffic are those that cleverly and creatively promote themselves. Offline stores need to have their Web site address on everything with which the customer has contact, including business cards, shopping bags, store windows and anywhere else you can attract attention. Additionally, make sure your site is listed with powerful, widely-used search engines such as Yahoo!, Lycos and About.com.

Friends In High Places

A little help from some powerful friends does not hurt. Online powerhouses such as Intel, IBM and Yahoo! have package deals that enable businesses to get up and running on the Web relatively quickly. Included in many of these deals, which charge a monthly fee, are software and services that let merchants build sites which are then hosted by a third party. Some even handle order processing and encryption of credit-card numbers for the individual businesses.

Has The Train Left The Station?

Still, many business owners fear that they missed the golden opportunity to join the new e-commerce frontier. After all, by the end of this year, 2.2 million small businesses in the U.S. are expected to be online. Although the figures sound daunting, a recent poll by the Gallup organization shows that three of every four small businesses still do not have a Web site.

Since small businesses in the U.S. employ nearly half the workforce and generate a third of economic output, the time to expand their borders is now.

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