Wednesday, August 6, 2008

BUILD YOUR VIRTUAL STORE

At some point, every small business must set up shop online.

A website can serve as another sales channel, a place to feature products, or just a resource for more information about your business. But above all, it serves as a communications channel with your customer. Establishing an online presence doesn't have to break the bank or eat up your time.

Here's a guide to help get you on your way.

Register a domain name.
Dozens of online registry sites allow you to secure a domain name. Some of the most popular include Register.com, NetworkSolutions.com, and GoDaddy.com. They're all fairly similar, and which one you choose won't really affect anything else about your site, so the main difference is price. In general you can expect to pay an annual fee of about $15, but if you're inclined to comparison shop you can pay as little as $8 a year. Try to pick a domain name that's as simple and intuitive as possible - complicated URLs just make it harder for customers to find you. Most companies simply drop their name into the middle of www and com, as in: www.JetBlue.com.

Set up an e-mail account to receive customer feedback.
One of the keys to your Web success is making sure your customers can always reach you. Once you have your domain set up, be sure to create an active e-mail address and post it on your site right away. As your site grows, this will become a key contact point for your customers, and it will allow you to get feedback on your business.

Hire a temp.
You probably have better things to do than spend all day entering data for every item you intend to sell online. As you start assembling your site in earnest, hire someone else to help with the setup work.

Sources to turn to for easy solutions
Numerous Internet service providers (ISPs) offer e-commerce solutions that require little work on your part. Some of the most basic handle your Web hosting needs and provide standardized storefront templates. Many are capable of growing with your business, offering additional services and customizable options should you need them down the road. These companies can provide basic design templates and technology to process transactions, too.

Telecommunications company offers an assortment of off-the-shelf set-up packages for individual merchants. Some key components to look for in such packages are shopping-cart software (allowing your customers to drop in items as they go through your site) and assistance with Web design. This last part is extremely important, as deciding how customers will flow your site is the same as directing them to merchandise. You have to get this part right.

You may have to go through your bank or through services like Verisign to set up a secure system to accept online payment for orders. For smaller operations, you can also explore services like PayPal, which make it easy to accept customer payments with an easily downloadable software package.

Think about affiliating with another site
Is it better to go it alone or join an existing online community? If you really need to differentiate your product or brand, particularly through site design, you may be better off building your own site. But if your needs are more basic and you want to keep costs down, it's probably to your benefit to pitch your tent in an existing online marketplace, which can provide more traffic than if you just open a shop and wait for customers to blow by. Sites like Ebay, Yahoo, and Amazon offer prepackaged storefront services with variety of options for individual merchants, often including free registration of your domain name.

Ebay offers your customers the chance to bid on items or buy them outright at a set price. The Ebay package also includes flexible listing options, limited customization tools, monthly sales reports, inventory search options, and the ability to cross-promote other items with ones you are selling. A mid-level Ebay store costs $49.95 per month, but options rage from $9.95 a month for a bare-bones storefront to $499.95 for a full-service store complete with marketing support.

Yahoo offers three basic levels of service, ranging from $39.95 a month to $299.95 a month, plus a $50 setup fee (sometimes the setup fee is waived during promotions) and transaction fees that range from 0.75 percent to 1.5 percent. It, too, offers a selection of services as well as simple step-by-step methods for listing your products online and software for accepting payment.

Depending on what kind of products you're selling, Amazon also offers several online options for third-party sellers. Amazon's Marketplace program charges a 15 percent commission, on top of a $39.99 monthly subscription cost (or $0.99 per item if you prefer), but leaves shipping and customer service to you. As another alternative, you can partner with Amazon and sell its goods on your own site for a commission.

The bottom line:
Always focus on the benefits to your business
Be sure to keep your customers and your business goals in mind as you set up your site. Getting online is the easy part. Creating an online presence that adds value to your core business is what really matters.

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