Are you being served?

Well, surprise, surprise. E-tailers are going broke and closing their portals. The only surprise here is the number of people who believed that every new e-tailer would be fabulously successful. Given that half the ordinary retailers that start up each year fall over, why should online shops do that much better?

Now the answer is clear. They don't and they won't. The likes of Harvey Norman, David Jones, Coles et al have spent more time building their brands than any of us have spent in their shops. Online sellers are going to need the same level of persistence before they can hope to emulate this success. And it seems that the old-world re-tailers will be on-line before the new-world startups have managed to get viable. Guess who will win this one.

What does this mean for small business owners who are just discovering the Net? Should you just give up? No. Just don't plan to "own" the particular online space where you decide to play.

The reality is that it will be quite some time, if ever, before the majority of selling happens online. But don't miss out on the benefits that a Web site can bring to your business just because you can't expect to be the only game in town.

Your existing business probably doesn't cover the whole city that you live in, never mind the country or the planet. You don't have to intend to conquer the world in order to get Web-enabled. The Internet provides something that no other medium has yet been able to offer - 24-hour self-service. Making it easy for your customers to get the information they need about your company and your products is more important than actually selling the stuff online. Giving your customers somewhere to go when they need support after the purchase is even more important. Word of mouth has never been surpassed as the premier sales-generation tool. Keeping your customers happy is a sure fire way to get them spreading your word - at no charge to you.

Develop your Web site plan with an emphasis on useful and relevant information about what you are selling and why it should be bought. Make sure that there are scads of information about older models of whatever you sell. Its easy to add this stuff to a Web site. It never goes out of date, but it is a real lifesaver for the unlucky customer who can't remember what plugs into where late one Sunday night. You're not going to take that call yourself and only the mega-companies can afford 24-hour hotlines. But almost any business can afford a decent self-service Web site, particularly if the main content is information rather than half-baked efforts to sell online.

Realistically, there are a lot of things that will be damn hard to sell online for quite some time to come. Clothing is an obvious example of what not to sell online - particularly if your target audience cares what they look like. You might succeed selling business shirts to blokes. But even in the clothing game a Web site can be useful. How often have you bought some new item of clothing and then said, "This is so good. I should have bought two of them"? And do you ever make it back to the shop to collect the other one? Even if you do, it has probably sold out.

That's one occasion when a Web site would make perfect sense. You already know what size and colour fits. No need to try it on a second time. Click here to order.

Take the time to find the Web sites of other businesses that are in your space and have a look at what they are doing. Don't restrict your search to locals either - some of the US Web sites have really got their act together lately. Once you have a feel for what can be done, get connected and get your business online. Don't get talked into online selling too early - you can spend a lot of money there for not much return. Concentrate on giving good service that answers the questions people usually ask when they call or visit your real-world shop. If you treat the Internet as just one more way to stay in touch with your customers you will find it helps you rather than consumes you. Get even more good advice on joining the online economy in this month's edition of eComWorld included with this copy of PC World.

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Ian Yates

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