A recent report in the E-Commerce Times detailed how the U.S. government is considering the launch of a federally funded e-commerce pilot program designed to help small- and medium-sized manufacturers take their business online. If passed, the new proposal would create a network of centers across the country that would offer technical know-how, training and guidance for manufacturers. The thinking is that smaller businesses--the backbone of many an economy--have been slow to adapt to e-commerce, and there is a fear that they might be left behind.
Currently, it’s hard to tell how many small businesses regard the Internet as a place for buying or selling goods. Interestingly, of those who responded to the GSE Today website survey, just over 50 percent said they would consider buying used equipment online. The fact is, however, that most small business websites in this industry act merely as brochures. They are stationary pages that list products and provide contact information, but have no capacity to conduct e-commerce transactions.
The two key questions that businesses ask themselves before stepping online are probably, "How do I do it?" and "How much will it cost me?" I can’t pretend to have the answers, but the good news is that in this age of rising Internet sales, the competition between e-commerce solutions providers is intense and the costs are coming down. Many have teamed up with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and web hosters, so the chance of finding a one-stop solution system provider is good.
What must be remembered is that developing a website is no different to developing any other kind of external image. It’s about developing a positive brand that is clearly recognizable and attractive—it’s just that this time the target is the online consumer. But beware, experts warn that there is much more to developing an online image than simply duplicating any branding carefully built up in print media. Forget flashy images and jazzy text; it’s all about enhancing the kind of one-to-one relationships that make the Internet unique. Consumers must be given the best (or simplest) interactive experience possible. Never forget that web brands are multi-dimensional and need to engage a customer, and make him or her want to return time and time again.
Like any form of promotion, bad advertising is worse than no advertising. Keep it simple, and make the technology you buy into and the end result fit your business targets. Rather than make you look like an all-knowing sophisticate, the array of web applications that can add bells and whistles to your site might just serve to irritate. What’s hot for one site may not be hot for another.
Although building an electronic storefront or developing a website appears daunting, it needn’t be. Our advice is to use the legion of e-commerce products and services that are out there to your advantage. Conversely, if selling on the web is not a key objective for your company, don’t. It’s certainly not for everyone. You could go for a purely promotional brochure site that promotes foot traffic to your door like you have done for years using more traditional means. Or you could opt for just one or two added value items on your website, such as online product quotations and credit applications in addition to the usual digital brochures.
In our own research, we have logged plenty of words from the wise. Don’t try and develop a site that is overly complex. Offer clear, easy navigation. Most people download websites using relatively slow modems so avoid massive content and flashy graphics. Go with a turnkey solution provider. Be aware that products that sell normally may not sell online. Above all, make it a good experience.
Also, be aware of the risks. E-commerce is changing the way we do business, but it also changing the risk of doing that business. Consider a risk assessment of your exposure to issues such as intellectual property rights, security exposures, business interruption, and reputation exposure.
With all of the above in place you will have a website or a store that is always open to anyone in the world with a computer and an Internet connection. And that’s most of us.