RETAIL & E-COMMERCE: How to get customers to your site and keep them there

You’ve already got the bricks-and-mortar of your business up and running. You have the employees, the products and the street address. But what about your Web site? Many companies have tiptoed into the high-tech world of homepages, but there’s a big difference between having a Web site and cultivating e-commerce.

“A lot of businesses have the idea that if they create a Web site, people will come automatically,” noted Jim Stamm, owner of ATI Consulting in Frankfort. “Instead, your site has to be marketed, like any product or service.”

And sometimes, just getting people to the Web site is the goal.

“A Web page is a success if it does whatever you expect from it,” said Brian Kohler, director of marketing at Cherryland Online Services in Traverse City. “That can be from making money to just getting exposure. You have to have realistic expectations and quantify them. You might say, ‘If the customer goes from here to there, then makes a phone call, that’s a success.'”

Getting customers to your site means laying a little groundwork. Stamm advises promoting your Web site by:

? Registering your site with many of the top search engines

? Putting your Web address on all of your business documents (paper or electronic)

? Trading links to your site from other sites related to your business

? Placing links to your site from sites listing your type of business. (Other tips on promoting your Web site can be found in the e-marketing article on page 18.)

Scott and Cindy Hardy, owners of Hibbard’s Flowers and Wedding Center in Traverse City, have a Web site that allows customers to get a quote on their wedding, order flowers for delivery, and more.

“Our hits are up 10 to 15 percent each month and our repeat customers are up 30 percent each month,” Scott noted.

How do they get their name out there?

“I use a couple of services to submit our site to search engines. It costs between $250-$500 a year. We are getting to be at the top of the list in searches for flowers in the area.”

Give them what they want

The Web site’s impact on Hibbard’s sales is evident, too. Sometimes they will take two or three Web orders a day and every day they get phone calls on the 800-number listed on the Web site, Hardy said. The resounding conclusion, then, is that once customers are at your site, they have to like what they see and get what they want.

“Web sites offer two-way communication,” noted Kohler. “Unlike print or TV ads, which are one-way communication, the customer can ask questions, order, or e-mail you. Have the customers tell you what they want from the site. The Web site is for them, not you.”

For starters, Kohler advises making sure your site is easy to navigate.

“It’s like going to the mall,” Kohler said, with a laugh. “I want in and out, but some people like to window shop. That means creating a site that can be navigated in multiple ways.”

Regular users to your Web site, he added, want to be able to just click on a topic menu and get down to work. Printability is another often overlooked characteristic in Web sites.

“Lots of times people like to print out just one page to hang on to for reference,” Kohler said. “Make sure to have one key page for them to print with all the pertinent information on it.”

And to beat back a lot of the old standby advice offered in past years, Kohler advised companies to, above all, create a Web site that reflects who they are.

“Often experts advise using muted colors, which do work,” he said. “But don’t try to be everything to everyone. Have a target market, even if it means using bright colors, and be very good at it. The Internet is a niche market. It’s better to be a big fish in a little market and please a few people very well.”

This is evident at the Web site of Riverside Marina Hunting and Fishing Center in Bellaire. While owners Eldon and Kathy McPherson don’t sell products online, they list products and information on the area, and they give their customers a first-hand look at the unique life offered in the region.

“We use our Web site to show people what we have up here. There’s pictures of local people with their big fish or big bucks,” Eldon McPherson said. “It’s a view into northern Michigan.”

Often, the McPhersons will get e-mails asking about boat rentals or fishing reports. Customer demand has dictated a link to the DNR’s official report at area lakes.

On-going perfection

Finally, once you have your Web address set in type and your Web page set on screen, don’t expect the work to be done or for miracles to happen overnight. A Web page is an ongoing project.

“It’s not necessary or even most effective to do it all at once, like you may be used to doing with print media like catalogs,” noted Dave Reed, vice president and marketing director of Town & Country Cedar Homes in Petoskey. “As long as you have consistent strategy and a graphic theme, it’s best to build your site as you would a home: from the foundation up, one component at a time. Do each one right, then watch it every day.”

Over 50 percent of Town & Country’s prospective customers first locate them via their Web site, while nearly 90 percent use the site for their initial contact, according to Reed.

Scott Hardy noted that one of the most critical aspects to keeping customers returning is to change the content of your site. “People will start to feel they’ve ‘been there, done that’ if your site doesn’t change,” he noted. “Update your page often and date it at the bottom. Sometimes you’ll see a site that looks so old and without a date, and you’ll wonder if they are even in business anymore.”

Hardy, who is also a national sales manager for Thinkwell, which publishes multimedia textbooks, does his own upkeep on his site with Microsoft FrontPage.

“The program is very user-friendly,” he said. “I just type in straight text and it converts it for me.”

WD Web Company in Williamsburg offers another option for small business owners. This month they are launching a “shopping cart” program that can be customized to incorporate the existing computer software programs of small business owners–from inventory to accounting.

“Small businesses run differently,” said Dave Bidwell, sales manager. “We tailor e-commerce to them. We don’t change the business to fit the software like a lot of packages out there do.”

The program allows companies to make their own changes, browse orders, add or delete inventory, change featured or sale products, track stock, send e-mails for reorders and more, according to Shelley Steele, marketing manager. Currently, WD Web is working with three area companies using the new software.

Other companies in the area offer different programs for e-commerce. Cherryland Online, for instance, creates the “structure” but companies can go in and do uploads, run new specials and other things.

“There is no turn-around time for the client,” Kohler noted. “We make a control console behind the web page and the client doesn’t need to know HTML.”

For a taste of e-commerce, you can try WD Web’s demo sites. To see a Web site as a customer and place a sample order, visit shop.wdweb.com. This is the “front end” of the Web site. The “back end,” where the company can fill the order, can be seen at shop.wdweb.com/admin. BN

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