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ISSUE 550: The high tech office- May 9 2000

ALAN ZISMAN

Follow this slimming, 10-step program to maximize Web site sales success

Last week we looked at some of the difficulties standing in the way of building a profitable online retail site. In particular, some statistics suggest that an average sale of $160 ends
up costing an e-tailer $250 or so, for a net loss of $90.

In his speech to this year's Internet World 2000 conference in Toronto, Microforum chief technology officer Marco Argenti presented that gloomy statistic. He also went on to propose a 10-step program for becoming successful e-tailers, based on the assumption that the only way to actually get ahead of the game is to build a customer base that chooses to return to your site.

* Less is more. Build a simple site that focuses on the products for sale, not on how cool your site can look. While your Web designer may want to sell you on design, your job is to sell your product to your customers. Use neutral coloured backgrounds that are less distracting and help make your products the focus.

* Pay attention to speed. We've said this before in this column, but it's worth repeating. Any Web page will look fast when demoed off a computer's hard drive, and most business people get to the Internet over a fast network connection. But most potential customers are shopping from home and 95 per cent of home Internet connections use slow phoneline modems. A 100-Kb page will take 30 seconds or so to load, about the longest anyone will wait. Avoid large graphics, animations and plug-ins. If you really must use this sort of eye candy, include a faster-loading alternative.

* Deal with trust issues. If you are taking credit card orders online, ensure your site is secure and digitally certified and that your potential customers know this. Show proof of certification and state up-front that any pages where customers are asked to enter information is secure. If you aren't gathering customer information for sale to third parties, say so. And if you are, give customers a chance to opt out. (Check with TRUSTe at www.truste.com for information on building trust on your site.)

* Offer clear directions. Big sites can be confusing. Try to make getting around your site simple, keeping the number of layers to a minimum. Always include links back to your home page and keep the design and placement of navigation links consistent from page to page. This helps keep your Web site fast, as each time your customers have to go to a new page, they have to sit and wait -- or lose patience and leave. Since your goal is sales, make it easy for potential customers to find your products and place an order.

* Make your customers feel at home. Offer customers an option to register, but respect their choice not to. Welcome registered customers back and offer personalized promotions and suggestions based on their purchase history. If you want to collect customer information, make it clear that there are some rewards for sharing personal data.

* Build communities. Offer information on what other shoppers with similar tastes have purchased. Give custo-
mers a chance to post re-
views of products or to post questions.

* Service, service, service. The Web's anonymity makes customer service a big concern. Many potential customers are afraid that their order is just going into some electronic black hole. Send out e-mail confirmation of all orders and include a toll-free number allowing customers to verify or track the progress of their purchase. Let customers know when their order will be shipped and when they can expect it.

* It's a wide world... Display prices in multiple currencies. Allow customers to pay in their local currency at a reasonable rate of exchange.

* Pay attention to shipping. Some online sites promise low prices, but are inflating shipping costs. Customers quickly figure this out. Make shipping easy and affordable. Offering free shipping will result in repeat customers.

* Tell the world. There's no "build it and they will come" on the Internet. You have to advertise. Submit your site to search engines. Buy banner ads, targeting them to your potential customers. Use traditional advertising media as well -- print, radio, T-shirts and what-have-you -- to target your potential customer base. *

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan