Hiring an E-Commerce Consultant for Your Catalog Web Site

If you are finally ready to take the plunge in setting up a true e-commerce presence on the Web, there are many decisions that await you. In fact, creating a viable e-commerce strategy is like opening a virtual Pandora's box. Each decision you make will ultimately affect the potential success and profit of the site. So how do you decide where to turn?

If you're like most people in charge of running a successful business, the realities of setting up an e-commerce driven Web site are simply too time consuming to even consider a do-it-yourself approach. As with every other business decision, the way to create a profitable e-commerce business model is to bring in the experts to take a hard look at your business. A consultant with experience in both traditional marketing, retailing and direct marketing combined with expertise in e-commerce and interactive applications may be the best solution for your business. Consultants don't come cheap, but an inferior Web site unfortunately costs just as much as a good one.

No matter how large your business, or how profitable your catalog response, the reality is that more people are turning to the Web to place orders rather than employing traditional methods of calling a direct marketer's toll-free number. Those who are familiar with the Web often prefer the convenience and follow-through of a convenient Web site, and every year more people are discovering the value and convenience of shopping on the Web. While we would all like to have the success of Amazon.com, there are many other companies who are in line to be the next shining star of e-commerce.

Once you are ready to hire an e-commerce expert, there are several questions you need to ask of your perspective consultant:

First, does the consultant have traditional marketing expertise along with e-commerce knowledge? An understanding of marketing methods is absolutely critical to success. It's easy to get your customers to visit your site once, but the greatest challenge is keeping the customer long enough to order and then getting him back to re-order. Just as the most successful catalog offers shoppers greater convenience than a drive to the local mall, the e-commerce site should offer additional benefits to dialing the phone or mailing an order. Ask your consultant a simple question: What does marketing mean to you? If he stumbles on the answer, or if his outlook is completely different than your marketing plan, then it's time to consider alternative consultants.

Secondly, has your consultant carefully studied the demographics of your target audience? After all, you would never blindly mail tens of thousands of catalogs to unprofitable ZIP codes, yet many e-commerce sites are designed without any consideration of the target audience.

In order to customize your site properly, a full demographic overview of your customer base needs to be created. The consultant must develop a snapshot of your customers and determine the logical means of encouraging them to purchase over the Web. Are you catering to an upscale, computer savvy group, or are you catering to the occasional user? Work carefully with your consultant to create the tone of your site to match your customer and maintain a look and feel in all of your external and internal communications, both in paper and electronic. Your customers need to know they are shopping with the same company they have relied on via phone or mail.

Next, ask your consultant to describe his success stories? Then, ask him about his failures. Just as with a job interview, you need to determine the best candidate for an assignment. Has the consultant created any e-commerce sites that can be related to your goals? In order to make a match, you also have to ask yourself exactly what you hope to gain by expanding your e-commerce presence. What special products and services can you bring to your Web shoppers? How can you better describe your merchandise through use of animation, video, sound and color? Don't be caught in the trap of simply pasting text and basic images on your Web site. How many times have you wished that your customers could only see and touch the quality of your merchandise? While customers can't actually feel through the Web, good graphics and clever animation can create an entirely new shopping experience that will make them want to return.

Finally, does your consultant plan to integrate your new e-commerce site fully into upcoming interactive digital television applications? While the Internet can bring the basics of enhanced ordering power, only interactive television will truly be able to provide an easy and entertaining home-shopping experience.

While we are only beginning to experience early trials with interactive television, it's clear that within five years most homes in large cities will have access to interactive applications like home shopping, catalog requests, e-mail, Web browsing and other new applications yet to be developed. AT&T and Microsoft have invested heavily in cable television companies and small Silicon Valley companies working on new interactive applications to be delivered into each home via a digital set-top box. In just a few years, it's entirely possible that today's Internet e-commerce site will have expanded into a true home-shopping environment.

Consider the benefits of being able to narrowcast your interactive catalog to cable subscribers who match your demographics. In addition, the possibilities of linking catalog shopping to existing commercials via digital television are just now being explored. Your e-commerce plan has to include ongoing strategies for embracing new technologies as they are created, and your consultant needs to be in touch with all possible mediums as he develops your site.

The bottom line is that there is an untapped wealth of resources awaiting the next clever e-commerce marketer. Take a good look at what made Amazon.com and other sites successful. They are interactive, they are fun and they make a shopping experience better than through traditional catalogs. And perhaps most importantly, don't be trapped by technology. People shop on the Web to shop, not to experience technology.

If your consultant gets too caught up in the nuts and bolts of Web design, you could potentially end up with a site that is either too complicated or simply not inviting. Like the sleek and beautiful store in the mall that always seems empty some early e-commerce sites had absolutely no appeal. Keep it fun and keep it simple. By matching your needs carefully to your consultant's skills, your company can only grow stronger and more profitable in the online world.

George Applegate is president of The Moving Target Group, Santa Monica, CA. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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