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Is e-commerce a priority for your small business?

Should e-commerce still be a priority? For lots of small business operators who were worrying two years ago that they were missing out on huge volumes of potential online business--and did not have the time, money, or inclination to do so at the time--the question is both real and valid.

The answer, as with many business applications, depends a great deal on your expectations. If the expectations are that merely by hanging out a shingle on the Web and opening up a small e-commerce site, your business will see huge increases in sales of products and services, then they are clearly out of sync with reality. That is so-o-o-o 2000, man!

But if you have an ongoing business strategy that can be better supported by making e-commerce tools available to your customers, it may still be worth investing in e-commerce.

What business are you really in?
The first thing you need to look at is the business that you're really in--and the products and services you sell. If you run a business that is largely based on selling your services (i.e. your time) and personally delivering and installing products alongside those services (as would be the case with a plumber, electrician, carpenter, and so on), then you really have to wonder whether or not you are going to add any value to the experience by setting up an e-commerce site.

While there may be some utility in allowing your business to be listed in some online directories for services, the fact of the matter is that a lot of your business probably comes from word-of-mouth testimonials in your local community. You are unlikely to be doing business outside that community, so, therefore, the "worldwide" Web is not necessarily the best place to try and uncover new business.

None of this is to say that a locally based, the service-oriented business can't benefit from Internet-based tools--it's just that an e-commerce Web site probably isn't one of them. If you wanted to communicate better with your customers and potential customers, an email sent to all existing customers and perhaps the local chamber of commerce members might produce more results than simply setting up a Web site. After all, the "call to action" at the end of this marketing is that you want customers to call or email you. You don't actually have anything that you could really sell from a Web site.

While it's true that you could set up an online calendar so customers could make provisional bookings when they see you're free--and you could manage all of that wirelessly with a Web-enabled personal digital assistant (PDA)--none of that will probably matter to the 80-year-old woman whose basement is being flooded. She just wants a plumber, not an enticing interactive experience.


Can you think locally, but act globally?
E-commerce solutions typically work best when you have a product that you want to sell to the world, but your resources in selling to the world are limited. That's why used booksellers and antique dealers love eBay--they get the benefit of being able to do business with the world without having to leave home.

Now if you make a product that is very specific to a niche market, you can use an e-commerce solution to reach that market in a targeted fashion (ie. designer collars for ringtailed Nubian cats, which you could advertise in Ringtailed Nubian Cat Fancier Magazine citing the Web address of your e-commerce site). However, your success is likely to be heavily dependent on your advertising budget--and your delivery mechanism.


Delivery: The missing link
The stories of customers who ordered products on the Web and were disappointed when they took forever to arrive--or found that their orders were lost, wrong, or misaddressed--are legion. Most people who have shopped on the Web regularly have at least one such tale of woe. Remember that you only have one chance to get it right with each customer--and if you don't, that customer is never likely to order from your e-commerce site again.

That means you need to pay lots of attention to the security, usability, and reliability of your e-commerce site--and to your own delivery infrastructure (even if that merely consists of regular visits to your local Purolator office). Your delivery mechanism is potentially the weakest link in the chain--and likely to be the one over which you have the least control--so spend some time planning it and working with whoever will deliver your goods to ensure reliable, timely and accurate deliveries.


Not for the faint of heart
The long and short of e-commerce for small businesses is that it shouldn't be entered into lightly. It is not for the faint of heart or short of patience. You need to have a plan and a clear understanding of what your e-commerce solution is doing for your business.

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