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E-Commerce: What Works, What Flops

“E-Commerce: What Works, What Flops”

Setting sail on choppy electronic waters? Learn which boats float.

In the virtual world of the Internet, the rules of common sense often seem to be suspended. Anyone can open a Web-based storefront, at minimal expense or even for free. But this easy access to e-commerce does not guarantee success. So what causes one site to flop while another flies?

Promote or Die

Like any business, e-commerce sites must be aggressively promoted so potential customers can find you. This means including the site location in print and broadcast advertising, adding it to business cards, product labels and packaging, even including it in the recording that customers hear when on hold or calling after hours.

Your site needs to be publicized online also. It must be submitted to "search engine" sites like Yahoo.com and Excite.com, which are key entry points for many Web surfers. Hidden indexing comments called "meta tags" should be included in the behind-the-scenes design of your Web site, to make it easier for these search engines to categorize your site in their listings. Banner ads, either purchased or exchanged in a barter system, can also draw visitors to your location.

Show ‘Em What You’ve Got

The next problem area is design. Too many Web sites pay little attention to "traffic flow" or product merchandising. They are laid out for the convenience of the programmer, not the customer. Products may be listed alphabetically by category or by brand name, making it nearly impossible for the shopper to find what he wants, much less to browse.

When laying out your Web site, think of it as a store or a well-designed print catalog. Your goal is to create an enjoyable shopping experience, not an efficient database.

The biggest single failing of most e-commerce newcomers is not answering customers’ questions. Would-be shoppers who want information about the merchandise, or who have a problem with something they bought earlier, send e-mail queries to the merchant and hear nothing back. The effect on customer loyalty is predictable.

Once you have a customer, stay in touch. "Opt-in" e-mail lists enable you to alert customers to sales and are today considered good form if used sparingly, so you are not "spamming" the recipient.

Steal What Works

Look at what the leaders are doing and try to emulate them.

One thing you may learn is that most of the successful sites keep a tight rein on technological bells and whistles, which can make accessing the sites painfully slow. A delay of even five seconds will result in many visitors clicking off to try another site.

Maybe Don’t Do It

Finally, think about whether you should be selling online at all. It is tempting for manufacturers and distributors to try to capture the profits made by retailers, but you risk alienating the merchants who now generate the vast majority of your income. A wiser strategy for you might be to use your Internet site to promote your products, but to direct retail buyers to the stores or Web sites of your channel customers.

Writer: Alexander Auerbach