Make Your Site Fit Customers' Needs

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The allure to launch e-commerce Web sites is, perhaps, strongest among brand-name companies. Since these businesses already have established name recognition, what could be an easier online fit?


Unfortunately, many brand-name companies rely too heavily on their names when launching an online site. And brand name alone is not sufficient to survive the fierce competition on the Internet.


Creating a successful e-commerce site requires special attention to five areas: customer service, awareness, information, navigation, and matching the customer's experience to his expectations.


Customer service should be presented as it is in the physical store. To succeed online, customer service must be established as a key element of competitive differentiation. A study released by Digital Idea, Westport, CT, noted that the more closely the online experience resembles the interaction consumers have with employees in the physical store, the more comfortable they will be when using the Web site. Customer service must be fast, efficient and always available.


E-mail is currently the most prevalent form of customer service employed by businesses on the Internet. While it may be the de facto standard, it is too slow to meet the demands of customers who are used to immediate answers from the salesperson on the floor.


Consumers do not want to wait long for responses from customer service representatives. When questions or problems arise, consumers need to receive instant solutions or they will go elsewhere. To achieve this, companies can revert to such systems as instant messaging or toll-free numbers.


Create awareness through subtle and innovative communication. In the final three months of 1999, Internet companies spent more than $1 billion advertising in traditional media. In order to compete with the abundance of advertisements flooding the market, it is crucial for companies to create advertisements that will be noticed. This is where bricks-and-mortar companies have an advantage -- the physical store. Creating awareness for a Web site is much easier and more cost-effective than advertising the creation of a new Web site.


Methods employed by companies such as Gap Inc. and The Sports Authority include placing Web addresses on cash registers; posting them within stores; printing them out on receipts; and putting the URLs on shopping bags or boxes. Consumers will often see these types of promotions when they are not consciously looking for them. While consumers are checking out in a store, they often carefully watch the cash register. At that time, they are likely to view the Web address as information that projects a more convenient shopping experience rather than as an advertisement.


For example: Within a month of The Sports Authority's online launch, it was receiving an average of 53,000 daily visitors. Much of this success can be attributed to its ability to create awareness of its Internet site in its physical stores, which number nearly 200 in the United States and account for nearly 50 million customers. "Unlike strictly online stores, we can promote our Web site throughout our land-based stores," said one executive at The Sports Authority.


Information should be presented on consumers' terms. Presenting too much information can be just as damaging as presenting too little. A company has to be very conscious of appearance. There is a fine line between providing information that educates the consumer and trying to use marketing tools in order to sell products. When consumers view a long stream of sales copy and/or pictures, it can appear that the company is trying too hard to sell a product.


Most information consumers see on a Web site should be at their request. Presenting consumers with a flood of material can convey a sense of bias. Moreover, businesses must be careful to present information so that it is clearly educational and does not appear to be a sales tool.


Keeping a site simple allows consumers to move faster. Companies can fall into three potential traps when designing their Web pages. These include difficult navigation, unorganized categories and overwhelming front pages.


Most complaints that arise about a Web site's navigation, however, are not about the front page, but emerge when consumers find themselves stranded inside the site. Typically, this happens because great care has been given to navigation design, but only in one direction: submerging, and not surfacing.


Good navigation includes using easy-to-understand menus and never putting users onto a dead-end page. Search engines can send customers to any page on a site, which is why it is important to make it easy to return to the home page from any Web site location. The fewer clicks of the mouse it takes to get to a product, the easier it will be for consumers to buy it.


Navigating the site should feel like navigating the physical store. By recreating the experience of moving through the physical store, consumers will have a greater sense of familiarity when using the site.


Making the experience meet the expectations. Businesses must make bricks-and-mortar and e-commerce work together as one location. A bricks-and-mortar company has the distinct advantage of being able to rely on its name and existence in the physical world. In order to use that advantage to its fullest, however, these companies need to integrate the best features of their physical locations onto their Internet sites.


If a company gives the online and offline locations the same name, consumers will expect the offline and online locations to be the same; i.e., interchangeable. What applies in the physical store should also apply on the Internet (returns, pricing, information, etc.).


Unfortunately, the fear of having their Web site cannibalize their bricks-and-mortar location has resulted in many businesses separating their Internet and physical locations. But, as Barnes & Noble learned, it is a move that can be disastrous to the health of the business.


The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. To integrate the two channels successfully and create an experience that meets consumers' expectations, companies must create a fluid combination of customer service, consumer awareness, information and navigation. Once this balance is achieved, and the consumer's experience matches his highest expectations, the virtual and physical presence can more effectively work together to strengthen and generate leads for one another.
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