Deliver the Basics Before Bells and Whistles

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As any general knows, you plan a major battle campaign around conditions most favorable to your success. And any successful general also knows that if you always wait for ideal conditions, you're not only going to lose the battle, you're probably going to lose the war.


Real-life battles seldom go as planned. After all, despite all the preparation that surrounded D-Day, the timing of the historic invasion hinged on the weather.


In the past four years, the Internet has emerged as a global field of commerce and communications. As a result, businesses are devoting considerable time, resources and staff to designing and implementing an e-commerce strategy.


The first mistake companies usually make is being overly ambitious. Then, dazzled by the interactivity and multimedia possibilities of the Net, they put off making concrete plans until they've "mastered the technologies."


As the expense and complexity of the e-commerce campaign escalates, the whole enterprise starts looking too risky. With so much at stake, the company begins to question whether it has the resources, staff and expertise to undertake such a major endeavor.


But neither Amazon.com nor LL-Bean.com were built in a day. Like any good battle plan, the strategy for an Internet retail operation should evolve in stages. The more you try to do right away, the more difficult the site becomes from a design and functionality standpoint.


Let's look at some of the most important points to consider when planning an e-commerce strategy.


• Build your base before personalizing the site. The Internet has added a new dimension to customer interaction by enabling companies to monitor and analyze what visitors do on their sites. By better understanding an individual's preferences, interests and browsing behaviors, a product or service provider can tailor offerings and promotions to appeal to individuals or well-defined demographic segments.


In the beginning, however, concentrate on building a customer base by offering good products and services. Once you have an established site, invest in analytical tools to differentiate your customers and personalize your interaction through e-mail offerings and promotions.


• Multimedia's impressive, but start with the basics. The digital universe can put on spectacular fireworks displays. Advanced imaging technologies let you rotate objects 360 degrees, zoom in on details and examine a product from multiple views. Online retailers can create virtual 3-D display environments and weave in animation, audio and video.


Yes, you can do all these things - eventually. Most new online ventures, however, will find such pyrotechnics prohibitively expensive. They also eat up bandwidth and slow the search process to a crawl. If you visit most e-commerce sites, you'll find this technology is still relatively scarce. An informative, clear image of a product is as effective a sales tool online as it is in a print catalog or advertisement.


• Image isn't everything. Companies spend much time and money on branding. This quest for the perfect look is cultivated and applied to everything they do. Naturally, when expanding onto the Web, companies want to build a Web store with their trademark appearance.


A consistent image is key to corporate branding, yet spending an inordinate amount of time and energy on the cosmetics of a first-time Web site is counterproductive. Get an attractive Web store up and running and then refine it based on customer reaction.


• Design for your current segment. You want to sell across channels to your most loyal and profitable customers. So what do you do? Set up focus groups to find out what they want? Send out questionnaires? Provide the same products and services?


Online retailers report that 50 percent or more of their customers are new. The Web is full of adventurous types who surf for recreation and business. Since checking out product options online does not involve driving from store to store, Web users do a keyword or product category search and zip from site to site. The best way to formulate an effective marketing and merchandising strategy is to set up shop and test different approaches.


• Fully integrate the back end. This is what every Web retailer should aspire to, but not bank the store on. In a perfect online world, your online order processing and fulfillment system would be integrated with inventory, billing, accounting and distribution infrastructures. With this fully integrated back end, data and market intelligence on your online retail operation would be available in near real time.


Trying too quickly to make a seamless, real-time connection between your Web site and product and distribution infrastructure can create a bottomless pit in terms of development time and costs. Because the systems tend to be incompatible, it is best to attack such a project in small increments.


Set realistic goals and have a cohesive development strategy. Like any concerted attack, you want your marketing, product, design and technical units working off the same battle plan. A focused planning and design commitment enables a company to frame an attractive, affordable and technically do-able e-commerce solution. Like solving Y2K problems, this takes a unified enterprise-wide effort.


Selling on the Internet is different from selling through other channels. Initially, its newness can be daunting and you might mistakenly conclude that everything has to be done differently. This is patently untrue. Online retail is not exempt from the same economic forces as traditional business and should be viewed as an integral part of your portfolio mix.


An online store's success depends on the usual merchandising strategies. Whether shopping in a store, online or by mail, consumers basically look for the same things: good products, efficient service and reliable delivery. The bells and whistles can come later. First you must get online and build a solid retail foundation.
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