Building A Web Page: Retailers can get a piece of the action

The time when the Internet was thought to be a flash in the pan, a vicious rumor designed by Bill Gates’ cronies to sell more Microsoft products, is long gone.

Welcome to the age of using your computer to sell product and advertise your shop in ways the Yellow Pages, highway billboards, and yes, even beer-can cozies never could.

Consumers today are buying everything from cars to wine to airline tickets on the Web. A recent survey of 400 ski, snowboard, skateboard, and sports shops indicated that only 37 percent had Web sites. But 45 percent of those who did not planned to build one within the next year, and 47 percent were considering it for some point in the future. Only eight percent said they had no plans to build a Web site.

But in an industry such as snowboarding, many retailers are caught between feeling like they have to put up a Web site because everyone else is, and needing to invest limited marketing dollars where they will produce the best results.

One of the most difficult things a retailer faces about getting an effective Web site up and working is deciding whether to launch a full-blown “e-tail” operation or simply advertise and market the shop. The other problem is that the level of sophistication has escalated to such that building effective Web sites requires more than simply going to a friend of a friend who knows HTML a computer language for building Web sites and getting a few pages online.

“Ten-thousand dollars may seem like a lot of money, and that might be your budget figure for the Internet and creating your e-commerce site,” says Nathan Perry, CEO and creative director of The Shop Interactive Web Designers and Brothers Boards Online store. “In Internet dollars, 10,000 dollars barely gets your big toe in the door if you truly want to be competitive. What you may think you’re going to get for your money and what you’ll actually end up with could be very different if you don’t know what you’re getting into.”

Brothers Boards, which has two physical locations in Colorado, launched its e-tail site in May, 1998 to offer skateboards and snowboards to customers beyond the immediate area. At the online store, customers can shop by the type of gear they’re looking for, click on an order-now button to add the item to their shopping cart, and keep track of purchases via an automatic budget tracker.

“When people come to the site, we want them to feel as comfortable as when they come into the physical store,” Perry says. “This means excellent customer service, up-to-date product info, and, most importantly, an easy shopping process.”

A recent article in Time magazine entitled “Click Till You Drop” (July 20, 1998, volume 152 no. 3, or www.pathfinder.com/time/magazine/1998/dom/980720/cover1.html for those of you just dying to log on) likened the Internet revolution to the shopping mall revolution of the late 1970s and 80s. Giant shopping malls put the suburbs on the map, became home to millions of pre-teens and teens, and redefined where and how Americans shop. Why? Because the mall offered one-stop shopping that was quicker and more convenient than running all over town to purchase four different items. It also offered a place for people to interact. The Internet is its own mall, only even more convenient, quicker, and without the hassle of leaving the living room.

Still A Scary Concept

E-commerce is still a scary concept for a lot of retailers, though, and understandably so. Even the best sites are just now starting to turn a profit, and there is a definite lag time between start-up and profitability that not all retailers are ready to go through again. Used correctly, having a Web site that promotes the store and gets customers learning its name can also be profitable.

Christy Sports launched its site two years ago, and although Advertising Coordinator Erika Bakos said e-commerce is something they discussed and are still considering for the future, the initial idea was to t a presence on the Internet.

“It didn’t seem like our competitors had much, and we thought soon enough it’d be conspicuous not to have a Web site. We wanted to tell people who we are and give them some information,” she says.

The site does more than just give information, though. It helps customers find the nearest store location, lets them know what brands it carries, and even allows them to reserve their rentals online so they’re ready for pick up when they come to the store. Bakos has found about half the people going to the site are from Colorado, where Christy Sports is based, and the other half are from all over the country and the world.

While it’s hard to judge how well a non-commerce site is doing, there are ways to measure success. Bakos says she goes by the e-mails she receives from customers who’ve visited the site as well as registration for online contests they run every month.

According to Perry, if customers are referencing merchandise they saw online when they come into the store, it means the site is probably doing its job.

“You may not automatically see increases in revenue, but if you’re doing everything right, you are more than likely building brand equity that will eventually turn into revenue,” he adds.

Building The Site

The keys to building an effective site are knowing why you are building it, knowing what you expect from it, and marketing it once it’s there. If you’re only building it because “everyone else has one,” you’re going to have to come up with a more detailed plan or else risk throwing money down the cyber-drain. Most retail sites that fail, do so because the designers didn’t outline what they wanted before it was built.

Do you want it to be a money-making entity in itself? If so, be prepared to invest quite a bit of money in an outside design firm that knows how to properly handle e-commerce. A lot more goes into it than you may think. If you’re like many retailers, you may just want something that can attract business to your store-same as any other advertising or marketing plan would.

First, you need to spend some time surfing around and looking at other retailers’ sites, from the winter-sports industry as well as others, to get an idea of what your possibilities are. The easiest way to do this is to go to any search engine (for instance, www.yahoo.com) and search for keywords such as retail, sports, shopping, etc. There are literally thousands of excellent sites out there, and checking a few out will help you to develop a plan before going to a site designer.

Keep in mind the bigger picture of the Internet. Sure, you want local kids to access your site and learn about your store. But what about their parents, who may find Christmas shopping easier and more convenient on the Web? What about tourists, who find it a lot easier and less expensive to find a rental shop on the Web than trying to make long-distance phone calls?

Some suggestions on what to include: snow/surf/weather reports, links to local resorts/manufacturers, Web-only coupons that customers can print out and bring to the store, event/contest listings, team/employee profiles, trail maps, shop news, e-mail, newsgroups/chat rooms, store locators with street maps, product info, sales and specials, and other information, such as descriptions of fabrics, board construction, and how to purchase gear if you’re a first-timer.

Learn about e-commerce and marketing. Again, there is more information on the Web on these subjects than you could possibly read. An excellent source is Wilson Internet Services, at: www.wilsonweb.com. You’ll find practically every article ever written on Web marketing, e-commerce, how to build an effective site at a reasonable price and how to find a designer. You’ll get a better idea of what questions to ask yourself and your designer, as well as what to expect from your finished site. If you want to read about the actual design process and HTML authoring, try going to a Yahoo search for Arts/Design_Arts/Graphic_Design/Web_Page_Design_and_Layout/.

Let People Know You Have One

Finally, market the site once its up. The most effective sites work because the owners make sure people find out they exist. For starters, your Web address should be everywhere your phone number is. Hook up with your vendors, local resorts, and hotels to arrange links to and from their sites. Put ads in local papers and magazines to announce your “grand opening.” Make sure your designer also arranges to get you listed on the major search engines under words your customers will look for, such as “snowboarding” or “skateboarding.” And make sure all your employees know about the site and what’s on it.

While it’s true that very few online sales ventures are turning a profit, and e-commerce accounts for only a very small fraction of the U.S. economy (about one percent), the projections for the future are staggering, and have very real implications for retailers. According to the Gartner Group, online consumer sales will increase 233 percent over this year’s estimated 6.1-billion dollars to twenty-billion dollars by the year 2000. While others predict that figure will only be around seventeen-billion, the increase over 1996’s .7-billion dollars is still tough to argue with.

The Internet is emerging as a viable way to do business and, done correctly, there is money to be made using it.o a Yahoo search for Arts/Design_Arts/Graphic_Design/Web_Page_Design_and_Layout/.

Let People Know You Have One

Finally, market the site once its up. The most effective sites work because the owners make sure people find out they exist. For starters, your Web address should be everywhere your phone number is. Hook up with your vendors, local resorts, and hotels to arrange links to and from their sites. Put ads in local papers and magazines to announce your “grand opening.” Make sure your designer also arranges to get you listed on the major search engines under words your customers will look for, such as “snowboarding” or “skateboarding.” And make sure all your employees know about the site and what’s on it.

While it’s true that very few online sales ventures are turning a profit, and e-commerce accounts for only a very small fraction of the U.S. economy (about one percent), the projections for the future are staggering, and have very real implications for retailers. According to the Gartner Group, online consumer sales will increase 233 percent over this year’s estimated 6.1-billion dollars to twenty-billion dollars by the year 2000. While others predict that figure will only be around seventeen-billion, the increase over 1996’s .7-billion dollars is still tough to argue with.

The Internet is emerging as a viable way to do business and, done correctly, there is money to be made using it.