A Linking Policy That's Good for All

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If you are a marketing or sales executive, chances are you are confronted with the complex issue of retailers seeking links to your site. If you're not, you are likely to be in the future as the Internet channel grows. You need to decide how to be fair to your dealers, to your consumers and to your company's own interests.

It can be helpful to develop a formal policy that creates standards. Here are some of the issues to consider:

* Does the retailer seeking a link have the necessary infrastructure in place to properly serve Internet consumer orders?

* Does the retailer stock a broad selection of your products online, so that when you send it a consumer from your site, the consumer is likely to buy your product and not a competitor's?

* Should you distinguish retailers' links according to the degree of support they provide your products?

* How can you maintain site clarity and avoid a maze of links that chills the consumer's buying impulse?

We've all read about the prevalence of consumer service nightmares in e-commerce. Good consumer service requires sufficient server and bandwidth for high volume access, call center support for customer inquiries, sophisticated e-commerce software fully integrated into the retailer's overall system and a stocked distribution center that can promptly ship consumer orders.

Call centers are important not just to provide consumer support, but also to be on hand for the one-third of Internet shoppers who prefer to order via the phone. Unless the online retailer's e-commerce software is fully integrated, inventory control is difficult, resulting in consumer shipment delays. Check the retailer's site to see if you can call the company and if live in-stock information is available on screen. This latter feature is a good indicator of the sophistication of the e-commerce software.

Watch out for dot-com retailers using third-party product fulfillment. They have difficulty providing consumers with timely order status. Make some test buys from their sites and see how they perform.

Consumers come to your site because they are interested in your products, and it's in your interest to send them to a retailer that broadly stocks your line. You may need to distinguish between "the good, the bad and the ugly." Retailers meeting your standards can be linked on the page located with a "where to buy" button. For the separate "online shopping" button, you should optimize the consumer's shopping experience with a single e-commerce partner. This partner can stock your full line and allow you to control important merchandising variables such as which products to feature, while avoiding competitive products.

Partners usually opt to avoid discounting as not to undermine your existing pricing structures. Your partner can also provide your product listing immediately upon the consumer's click, without the uncertainty of a re-shopping search to find your products.

If you choose not to go with a single partner for the "online shopping" button, at the least you want to limit the number of links to a manageable quantity for consumer clarity and ease.

Your Web linking requires a balancing of competing interests, and if you develop a well thought-out policy, you can optimize your site's e-commerce potential.

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