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What to think about when you want to start selling online

Are you right for eCommerce?

First it's important to know the difference between eCommerce and eBusiness. If you are selling goods or services directly from your online shop, taking credit card payments online, or taking orders direct from a web form, this is eCommerce. However, if you do not sell or take orders directly or take credit cards online, you are operating an eBusiness.

An eBusiness site might have an on-line product sheet with an email link that says "Email for a price quotation". Whereas, an eCommerce site might have a database of products with an email order form or secure online ordering via credit card. Plenty of companies are right for eBusiness, but not for eCommerce.

To help you start the evaluation process, we've put together a list of practical guidelines you and your small business should consider. First:

Understand your needs, opportunities, strengths, and the challenges before you embark on your foray into eCommerce or eBusiness.

How ambitious are your eCommerce goals? Consider whether you want an eBusiness, so you're not selling directly from your site, but gathering leads and enquiries instead; or an eCommerce site where you'll be selling products or services direct to the customer from the site. The latter will be more ambitious and will require a database-driven website with online shop software and the need for a Merchant Account, all additional costs.

Is there a market for my products and services on the Internet?

Some businesses are more "eCommerce ready" than others. If you sell products from a catalogue to users who have computers, setting up an eCommerce shop site can be a logical extension of your existing sales efforts. If, on the other hand, you sell gravel by the ton to local contractors who phone you whenever they need a truckload, eCommerce may not be cost-effective - although that could easily change in the future.

Assess how your existing customers purchase goods and services and find goods and services. Do they use the Yellow Pages and make telephone enquiries and personal visits? Do they browse the internet and compare prices or use their existing suppliers' websites?

Conduct a customer survey to see what online stores they already frequent and if they would order online from you if they could.

Examine internet figures for your industry. Look at Internet statistics sites, such as Nua.ie, nop.co.uk, freepint.com or re5ult.com.

Will eCommerce help me sell more effectively to existing customers?

Many companies sell to the same customers on a regular basis, especially in the business-to-business arena. For such vendors, an eCommerce website can minimise the need for routine sales calls.

It also makes ordering quicker and easier for the customer, who can make purchases via a step-by-step interactive process or a Web-based electronic form.

Those who don't yet want to have an all-singing-all-dancing online shop can easily create a site to capture orders via a form. This can be done with an easy-to-use Web authoring tool, such as Microsoft FrontPage. Individual pages within the site could link to a Microsoft Access database of product descriptions and prices, with a form for submitting orders.

Microsoft FrontPage is a website publishing and management program that provides you with the tools to create professional marketing and eCommerce websites and intranets. FrontPage not only gives you the tools to build your site, but lets you seamlessly manage your site and the team involved in developing and maintaining it.

Can you devote resources to enquiries, transactions, and customer support on the Web?

Placing a site on the Web is merely the first big step in profiting from eCommerce. Following through with customers is equally vital. For example, prompt processing is necessary. Furthermore, should customers have questions or problems, they need to be able to contact a human being via email, telephone or an e-form without delay.

Make order processing on your website quick and easy

Provide clear contact information and a form for your visitors to contact you with any queries

Consider adding a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page to pre-empt your visitors' queries and provide them with answers and solutions. If you can answer all their questions without them having to contact you, you may close the sale there and then.

Once I've made a sale, how do I get the buyer to come back?

Develop a community of loyal users by using tools such as:

bulletin boards


scheduled on-line chats

electronic mailing lists, using software such as List Builder

These site features can encourage visitors to return to your site even when they aren't ready to buy something. Each time they return, they are exposed to your new products or special offers. Chat facilities used to be mainly used by community sites. However, many business-to-business vendors, particularly where their product is complicated and needs explaining, are finding great value in offering online chat or seminar functions on their websites to help clinch sales.

How much can I afford to invest in eCommerce?

The best way to answer this question is to estimate what you'd spend to grow your business without eCommerce. Would you hire a sales representative, spend more on advertising or use direct mail? Finally, would an eCommerce website reduce the cost of selling to existing customers as described above by pushing down customer acquisition costs? Or, would customer acquisition costs increase?

Should my eCommerce site be hosted in-house or by an outside service?

Unless you have advanced computer skills, a Web server and a dedicated high-speed connection to the Internet, you'll probably want to have your site hosted by an Internet Service Provider (ISP) or dedicated hosting company. You can find a hosting company to fit your requirements in the SP Directory. Ideally though, you should have some element of control over the hosting, even if it's simply knowing your username and password to access the control panel or contact your hosts if your site goes down and your development team are away for the weekend.

Where can I get help in setting up an eCommerce website?

Chances are, you'll use a consultant to help you plan and launch your eCommerce website. The technology consultant may recommend you run your own site (and, depending on it's complexity, they may recommend the development of a CMS - Content Management System - to enable you to update the site yourself without any need for programming knowledge, or they may run it for you on a monthly retainer. You might opt to build your own website in FrontPage and buy online shop software, such as Actinic to sell online.

Whichever you opt for, there are experts who can help evaluate your needs and business goals and will design a solution specifically for you. However, most web development firms are not expert copywriters, so consider outsourcing the web copywriting to experts in this field.

Find out about your various development options for setting up a cost-efficient online shop

Look into off-the-shelf software possibilities and those provided by web development firms.

What next?

This is only a brief summary of some of the considerations for aspiring online retailers; but it's a very good start! Now:

Do your homework. Understand what your competitors are doing online and what your customers want. Find out which markets are profiting online and how you can do the same.

Plan your budget and time you'll need to spend on online customer service and updates. Determine whether you need a website developer to help you.

Look into DIY online shop solutions, as well as outsourcing solutions. List the pros and cons of each.

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