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Selling online can increase the reach of your business - but is it right for you?

The web provides a marketing tool that puts small businesses on equal footing with the 'big boys'. But how do you know whether e-commerce - selling your products or services direct to customers online - is right for you?

Quote�Any website is only as good as the number of sales it makes.�End Quote
Kane Western

The important thing to remember is that any investment in your site is worthless if it does not translate into increased sales. As Kane Western of www.2-home-business.com says: "It's very easy to get caught up in web development. You don't need to spend thousands of pounds building a website to make profits on the internet. Any website is only as good as the number of sales it makes."

The growth of online retail has been robust in recent years. According to The State of Retailing Online 8.0, published by Shop.org in conjunction with Forrester Research, "Online retailers saw a 24 percent increase in sales in 2004, outpacing traditional retail. Last year [2004], online retail sales accounted for 6.5 percent of total retail sales. In 2005, online sales are expected to account for 7.7 percent of total retail sales."

A growing market

Evidently the market is growing fast. Naturally there are products that seem to sell particularly well online, from gadgets, books and office supplies to cards, music, and collectibles; or anything that targets a specific niche market

However, if your target market is highly localised (for example, you are a hairdresser with one salon), an e-commerce site won't be necessary, as a brochure site that displays your prices, contact information, testimonials and opening hours would suffice. Similarly, if you target a market segment that is not computer or internet savvy, you may not need to sell directly over the internet.

But if you are keen to expand your reach nationally or globally, have an easy to dispatch product or service to sell, and your competitors are already operating e-commerce sites, then this could be the ideal opportunity to grow your business. (And if your competitors aren't yet running e-commerce sites, being the first to offer your target audience the chance to buy online could be a great move.)

Expand your business

Tom O'Brien of PDQ ProspectsE-commerce can help you expand your client base and effectively display and distribute your inventory. Your site can add value to, or replace, your physical showroom. What's more, e-commerce websites make it easier to upsell/resell related products.

Tom O'Brien of PDQ Prospects says: "Understand that whatever product or service you sell, you must look to resell other products or services or partner products and services to your existing customers."

Furthermore, distribution and reach can be increased by having other sites affiliate with you and resell your products and services on their own websites. "When you have solid foundations for your e-business in place you can then look to scale through referral systems and joint ventures" adds Tom.

You must plan your e-commerce venture carefully and set realistic expectations for how much you are likely to invest and what you will get back in return. Try and secure a memorable domain name for your website. And crucially, get feedback from your customer base. "You really need to get feedback fast and feedback cheap to see if your product will fly off your virtual shelves," advises Tom O'Brien. "In other words, do not pay thousands of pounds on site promotion only to realise nobody actually wants to buy."

Find a niche

Keith Milsom of Anything Left HandedNiche products with a clearly defined target market sell well online, such as those sold at Anything Left Handed. Keith Milsom, who runs the site, says, "The product was already proven through the existing mail-order business and shop, so demand was already evident. And now, through careful targeted online marketing, we generate approximately 50 orders from the website per day."

Colliewobbles is another example of e-commerce supplementing a traditional income. A few years ago, sheep farmers Mandy Bainbridge and husband Marcus were trying to deal with the devastation of foot and mouth. Now they've established a profitable e-commerce business based around their passion for Border Collie sheepdogs. Their websites sell 100 different Border Collie and sheep dog-related products across the world, from training whistles to training days.

These e-commerce success stories target niche products or have tapped into an un-served market. Can you do the same?

What next?

Start accepting credit and debit cards with an online payment service.

Drive more visitors to your website by climbing up the search engine rankings.

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