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E-COMMERCE: DO YOU NEED IT?

There has been a lot written about ecommerce in the past couple months.
Articles have appeared in BusinessWeek, Inc. magazine and Newsweek, among
others. Generally this type of buzz starts in the computer magazines,
and if it sticks around long enough, the general trades pick it up.

Since I read a number of computer magazines each month, I get
a view of the coming storm when it’s just a butterfly’s wing
flapping. Some times these ideas come to fruition, most times
not. Does anyone remember the hype surrounding Push Technology?
Micro-payments? How banner ads would pay for content on the Web?

All of these things have fallen short of expectations or died
entirely. The only type of Push Technology you see now is email.
Micro-payments didn’t even get their 15 minutes. Banner ad rates
are plummeting as Web surfers are maturing and less likely to
click on every ad they see.

So what to make of ecommerce? Well here’s my .02: it’s here
to stay. What shape it will finally take or even what it will
look like a year from now I don’t pretend to know, but technology
costs money, so businesses need to make money off of it. Two
years ago every consultant worth their salt was saying that companies
needed a Web site to survive. Last year these same consultants
told businesses they needed content to increase repeat visitors.
This year it’s ecommerce.

Let me tell you something you already know: every business is
different. Every business’s Web site is different. Morton’s
Salt
does not need ecommerce. Apple
Computer
does. Even if you have
something to sell, ecommerce may not be the best option for you.
If your best customers and clients use you because of your “hands
on” approach, maybe ecommerce isn’t where you should be
investing your time and money. If your work is mostly customized
perhaps face-to-face or even over the phone might be your best
close.

However, if you have something to sell that only needs to be
seen or described, ecommerce could be a good option. If you have
a product that can be utilized throughout the country or even
the world, ecommerce could bring you lots of business. If you
have big enough margins, high enough prices or plan on selling
enough product, ecommerce could become a major part of your business
plan.

Ecommerce allows people from all over the world, (or wherever
you’re willing to ship,) to purchase products from you day or
night. It can bring extra sales to your business and not cost
you any more in salaries. If nothing else, it could help bring
down your monthly cost of being online.

Ecommerce is not as inexpensive as setting up a Web site. Your
hosting service must have a secure server so people can feel
confident in putting their credit card information over the Internet.
(Aside: it’s easier to steal someone’s wallet and use their credit
cards at a gas pump or a store than it is to steal their card
number of the Internet, but people are still leery.) In general
this costs extra money for your hosting service, and thus for
you.

You (or your Webmaster) must set up forms using scripts that
will handle your order taking; these scripts are more difficult
to create than simple HTML; even if you can get your hands on
generic scripts, reworking them to your needs can be a nightmare
if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Your business must also have a merchant number; a number you
can get from a bank or credit union that will allow you to accept
credit cards both online or in the real world. Some of these
institutions are uncomfortable dealing with online transactions
and set high premiums and costs as a result.

There are also banks and other companies that put together “store
front” or “shopping cart” packages for you, handling
much of the headaches. These vary in price, but plan on spending
over a thousand dollars to set it up and $500-1000 and up per
month in costs. If you plan on doing a lot of business, these
options can be a good choice. However, they may not be your first
choice.

As always, there are a few companies out there who will do some
of this for free. iCat allows you 10 products to sell over the
Internet for no fee, at least for now. More products than 10
and you have to get an account with them. Also, there is still
a certain amount of work involved and you should be comfortable
with HTML and general Internet knowledge if you don’t have someone
doing it for you.

In the final analysis, (as of today, tomorrow might bring another
answer,) ecommerce can be very beneficial for the right sites.
It allows your doors to stay open 24/7 so you never have to turn
away a customer. It takes orders when you’re sick as a dog, or
on Christmas or your highest of High Holidays. But don’t include
it on your site if it’s not needed. If the goal of your site
is to be brochureware: a place for people to learn more about
your company without pressure, don’t worry about it. Certain
sites will be commerce sites and certain sites will be advertising
and marketing sites. I myself have no plans to add ecommerce
to my site. Anyone who remembers my “Rich Brooks
1998 Beefcake Calendar
” fiasco will know why.

–Rich Brooks

President, flyte new media

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