Many small business owners operating in Main Street are finding that they can no longer ignore the Web. The Web has proven to be an important business medium in the last few years as online businesses continues to expand. It has become essential for an existing business to go online as well.
According to the Bureau of Census, U.S. total e-commerce sales for 2012 is estimated at $224.6 billion in the United States alone. As a result, business owners feel compelled to look at how the Web can complement or expand their existing businesses. Not only are you missing vast opportunities by not being on the Web, your competitors may be already on the Web and now has the clear edge over you!
Benefits of the Web
Why bring an existing business to the Web? The Web offers a number of benefits to businesses, particularly to small and home-based businesses:
- Broadens your market potential
- Allows instantaneous communication with your core audience, prospects, customers, and employees (if any) with no waiting, and no down time.
- Reduces the “time to market” for new products.
- Offers global access, opening your doors to unlimited prospective customers Instantaneous customization providing the ability to offer products and services in real time; and to tailor them to the needs of completely new markets
- Offers ability to tailor your goods to the needs of completely new markets.
- Serves as a door to your business 24/7, allowing information about your business, your products and services accessible anytime, even days, nights and holidays.
- Provides a new product distribution channel that shortens the path to your markets.
- Enables Internet users to browse, review, select and purchase your products instantly.
- Gives customers direct access to sales literature at no incremental cost
- Allows marketing materials and product pricing to be instantaneously updated without incurring additional cost
- Educates potential customers about your business
However, expanding an existing business to the Web is not a simple process. It is more than learning how to write HTML. To make your new web-based operations a success, you need to have a deep understanding of the intricacies of selling on the Internet. From product presentation to customer fulfillment, doing business on the Web can add extra layers of complexity to your existing operations.
Steps to Bringing Your Business to the Web
Below are the five steps you need to take to make the transition to the Web as smooth (and as successful) as possible:
1. Set your goals.
The first step is to decide on how you want to use the Web. You can use it simply as a sales brochure for company or product presentation without using your site to sell your products. Prospective and existing clients can go to the Web site for detailed information of your products or services, and they can either call you, visit your store or office to place the order. You can then design a simple information Web site without the complexities of an e-commerce operation.
Or you can be more proactive and use your Web site as another sales medium. With your Web site, you will be widening your reach from your local community to the national or even global market.
The key is to set clear goals for branching out your business on the Web — and finding ways to measure your online presence and the success of your goals.
2. Think differently.
The e-commerce culture is different from traditional business. In a retail store, a prospective customer who enters and browses through your display shelves may stay for a few minutes, giving you or your sales clerks ample time to talk to the customer, address their concerns or answer any questions they may have.
On the Web, however, a prospective customer can hit the “Back” button within seconds of arriving on your site. They also leave as soon as they decide that your site is not at par with their expectations — e.g. perhaps your site is loading up too slow for dial-up, too cluttered to navigate, etc. Worse, they can start to shop on your Web site then abandon their shopping carts without giving you any reason for their decision to stop the purchase.
The Web does not allow for face-to-face interaction with clients. Instead, your Web site will be the “face” of your business. It is the front-and-center of your business: it is what clients will see. Your prospective customers’ opinion of your business will be shaped by the content, look, performance and functionality of your Web site. You need to make sure that everything on your Web site works well.
Check the following key elements of your Web site:
- Navigation: Is the site able to be explored without it crashing or being frustratingly slow?
- Content: Is it consistent with its bricks and mortar equivalent?
- Branding: How consistent are the colors and type on the site with its bricks-and-mortar establishment?
- Effectiveness: What additional reasons are there for visiting the site? Examples would be book reviews, recipes etc., not just the latest ad campaign.
3. Make sure products are suitable for the Web.
Before spending time and effort developing your web site, you need to understand that not all products or services sell well on the Internet.
What sells well on the Web? Studies have shown that the following are the characteristics of products that are suitable for the Web:
- High value relative to cost of fulfillment
- Products suitable for shipping by mail
- Digital products (e.g. downloadable)
- Products requiring lots of information (e.g. books, music, travel, banking)
- Products that do not need to be handled or tried on
- Products that are difficult to find locally
The shipping cost will be your biggest concern. Will the shipping cost prove to be a deterrent to purchasing your products? Web customers may not be inclined to purchase a product with high shipping costs if the product is easily and commonly available in their locality. An Internet buyer living near a PetSmart store or a grocery may not think about buying dog food on the Internet, but may not hesitate to plunk an additional $300 in shipping costs for an antique Louis V desk that the buyer will not easily find in his or her locality. Your product must have “value’ to make customers agree to pay a high shipping cost.
For products where the right fit is important (e.g. shoes, clothes), you need to have a system and policy for handling returns. Be prepared to the cost of product returns in your expenses as well.
4. Ask your customers.
Unlike an Internet pure-play company, you possess a great resource in your hands: your existing customers. Your existing customer base can help set the direction of your Web efforts. Get their opinions through formal or informal surveys, interviews, or even during casual chats. Some of the questions that you can ask them are as follows:
- Are they willing to use the Web to do business with you?
- How they will use your Web site: will they buy from the web site or simply use it to check on the availability of your products and new inventory?
- Will their purchasing behavior change if you have a Web site: will they stop coming to your store and instead purchase items from the Web?
- Ease of communication: will they use the Web to contact you instead of coming to your store or calling you?
When you branch out to the Web, you need to realize that you will be attracting a new set of customers that may be different from your existing customers. For one, your customer base will expand to your locality to the whole world.
Your existing customers may feel that they prefer doing business with you the traditional way, especially if they have been doing business with you for several years (some habits die hard). If they disagree to using the Web for your business, remember that your goal in expanding to the Web is to increase your customer base. Your Web site can be used to attract the Internet-savvy customers, while your traditional business presence can be used to service your existing customer base and those in your local area.
5. Realize that selling on the Web can be very demanding.
If you think selling on the Web is a walk in the park, think again. Doing business on the Web is a complex and time-consuming process, especially if you will engage in e-commerce.
First, you will have to create your online presence. From choosing your web host to installing your shopping cart software to making sure that you have the capability to accept online payments, be ready to do a thousand tasks. Some small business owners, particularly those with limited resources to outsource the creation of their Web site, find the task daunting especially if they are not tech-literate.
But creating your Web site is the easy part! Making customers come and buy is the most challenging part of doing business on the Web. Marketing your Web site can be a time-consuming task that can drain your resources and your energy.
A Web site is totally unlike a retail store: set up a store in a high-traffic location (e.g. mall or shopping complex) and you can be sure that customers can “bump” into you. On the Web, however, you will only be one of the billions of pages trying to rise above the multitude. To be visible, you need to do a lot of work: search engine optimization, aggressive linking strategies, advertising, publicity and promotions, viral marketing, etc.
At the start, use your captive audience — your existing customers — as your initial Web audience. Make sure that they know that you have a Web site: put your URL in your business cards, packaging, display it prominently in your store, and include it in all your business correspondences. Then slowly learn how to market a business on the Web in order to attract new customers for your business.
Fulfillment and delivery are also different for a Web business. Customers can walk in a store, pick out the items they want, pay for it at the cashier, sales clerk or cashier wraps the item and puts it in a bag, and the customer walks off. The whole process — from the product selection to getting the items into the hands of the customer — can take anywhere from five minutes to an hour. On the Web, however, it can take several days to get a product in the customer’s hand. You will have to explore the optimal way to package your items and decide on the shipping alternatives while aiming to keep the shipping costs down.
In addition, you need to craft a return policy. Big chain stores like Gap allows the return of any item purchased from Gap.com to any of their retail stores. As a small business owner, you may not have such luxury. Your return policy should aim to make returning any item easy to your customer while controlling the dent the return will leave on your bottom line.
Be prepared, too, to respond to emails from customers, potential business partners or suppliers that may have seen your business on the Web. For many business owners, answering emails can take a few hours of their time everyday. Part of evaluating customer service on the Web is by determining the speed with which you respond to the email sent.
6. Understand that doing business on the Web will require new skill sets
While good business principles is the same whether you operate a store on Main Street or an online shop, the skills needed to operate a business will be different.
The skills involved in operating a Web business — from creating and designing your website, setting up your ecommerce shopping cart, finding the right payment processing systems, configuring your server and other technical requirements (e.g. SSL security) — may be skills that are totally alien to you. You must decide whether you will do everything yourself and spend time to learn the technical skills needed, or whether you will outsource or hire someone to help you.
Expanding an existing business to the Web is like having a new business. You need to be ready for its financial, operational and logistical demands. Evaluate if you will do it yourself, or hire an assistant to help you launch and operate your Web business. More importantly, weigh whether the cost of doing business on the Web will be beneficial to your bottom line or not.
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