E-Commerce Considerations for Small Businesses


When I was a traveling salesman, knocking on nursing home doors throughout New England, I was forced to eat out a lot. (Tuna sandwiches tend to go bad sitting on your dashboard all morning. This was back in the early nineties and coolers had yet to be invented.) Although I spent many a noontime meal under the golden arches or at a Papa Gino’s, there are times when you need more variety. When choosing a random restaurant the first thing I always noticed was the sign. If the sign was unattractive I wouldn’t go in there unless a good friend recommended the place. Even if the sign coerced me inside, the rest of the restaurant would have to be clean, well-lit, rat-free, etc., before I would eat there. Why is this important? Well, if you’re in Northboro, MA, check out a deli called Pickles. Good sign, good food.

On a completely unrelated topic, there’s been a lot of interest in e-commerce these days. It seems like anyone with (or without) a connection to the Internet, 10 minutes of free time and a product to sell can instantly make a mint on the Internet, go public and sell their company to Amazon.com for a few hundred million dollars.

Don’t believe the hype. Although there are a few of those lucky souls out there, they’re usually just there to make our travails seem trivial. Building a good e-commerce site is a slow, ongoing process of trial and error. However, we can use someone else’s errors many of the times to cut down on our own trial time.

Over the last year I’ve spent time developing different e-commerce solutions for a variety of clients, as well as attending the ICE (Internet Commerce Expo) Show earlier this year in Boston. Each solution I’ve seen has its plusses and minuses, and ultimately you’ll have to decide which one is going to work best for your site. I’ll explore these different options more in my next newsletter; for now I’ll concentrate on some things that hold true for any online store, even if you’re not taking orders over the ‘net.

First Impressions

And you thought that opening paragraph was just a stream-of-consciousness plug for a deli I used to frequent. Let’s face facts: we’re all not Amazon.com, nor have we reserved names like shopping.com or buy.com that people might type in by chance. It’s a good guess that our prospective customer doesn’t know us from a hole in the wall and first impressions count. A home page–for either your store or your site–is like a first date: it should be clean and attractive and not make the other person wait too long. How many commercial Web sites have you clicked away from because of ugly or slow-loading graphics, or just because of a completely unprofessional look? (I mention slow-loading graphics because both Yahoo! Stores and Amazon.com have incredibly quick-loading sites that are clean and attractive.)

Show ’em the Goods

You may think that the gardening hose you want to sell is the same as any other one, so there’s no point of putting up a picture. Studies show that people are 57% more likely to buy a product on the Internet if they can see an image of it. (By the way, I just made up that statistic, but the point is it could be true. Sounds true, doesn’t it?)

If you don’t have a product picture from a brochure, take the picture yourself or hire someone. I know a number of excellent photographers who do product shots. In some cases the manufacturer has images of the product on their Web site and would be happy to share since you’re promoting their product. Even if it’s just a bottle of shampoo that looks like the other 7 bottles of shampoo or conditioner you’re selling, put up another picture. If you’re not showing your customer the product, you’re hiding it.

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Lost in the Supermarket

When your product selection gets to a certain size it may be time to categorize your inventory. A little corner shop may be able to put the plastic combs next to the Pez, but Wal-Mart needs to put the Pez dispensers next to the Pez refills in the Pez aisle which is nowhere near the combs and brushes. You aren’t the proprietor of a used book store featuring rare and out-of-print books where people enjoy browsing all day long while inhaling the musty fumes of decaying bindings. People don’t want to spend too much time looking for what they need; it’s easier to find the exit online than in the real world.

Rotate the Inventory

There was a liquor store near where I used to live that advertised its weekly special: “12 PACK BUSCH – $11.99”. First of all, a 12 pack of Busch for $11.99 is never special. Second of all, it was a weekly special for the five or so years I lived in Boston, and may still be. The bottom line is: feature and promote different products each month, week or day depending on your sales volume.

Take Credit Cards If You Possibly Can

More and more sites accept credit card orders, and so should you. There are added expenses in taking credit card orders but it may be worth it in the long run. If you don’t have a merchant number there are ways to get one. Also, some e-commerce hubs that rent space to small businesses will handle all credit card orders themselves, for a fee. This fee can be high, so it may only be workable for bigger ticket items.

Take Names (or at least emails)

To complete a credit card order over the Internet your customer is going to have to fill out a small form: name, address, credit card number and so on. This is a perfect opportunity to keep in touch with your customer. An email address is almost always a required field in these forms, and for good reason. It is a great, free way of contacting your customer again. With just a little extra work on your Web master’s part, that email address can be added to a growing list of customers who you can contact all at once about new specials and discounts at your store.

Now, as someone who gets copious amounts of spam, or unwanted emails solicitations, I implore you to do this the correct way. You’ll never make any friends or repeat customers by spamming people. My recommendation is to have an opt-in or opt-out option at the bottom of your form. An opt-in would be a button that people can click that signs them up for future mailings; an opt-out would do the opposite. You’ll get better response with an opt-out because people tend to want to get to the submit button as quickly as possible. If someone has already bought products from you I think an opt-out option is best.

Now you have a growing list of people who you know are interested in what you have to sell. Periodic email flyers to these people about new products and sales are a great way to get repeat business and help grow your online business.

–Rich Brooks
President, flyte new media