Smart Ways to Get Smart Customers

What a difference a couple of years makes. For a time, it seemed anyone with a Web site and a good idea was overwhelmed with new customers. People went online in droves to scoop up everything from soup to nuts.

Now that the playing field has been leveled, those who are fortunate enough to be left standing are looking for smart ways to acquire customers, many of whom were burned by experiences with companies that could not handle high volume and that suffered crippling fulfillment problems. Consumers, also influenced by Wall Street's lack of enthusiasm for e-commerce, became savvier and more cautious. E-tailers were suddenly faced with a new task: building consumer confidence in online shopping.

Gaining consumers' trust and confidence is a fundamental part of success for any retailer. Brick-and-mortar stores and e-tailers alike have unique benefits to offer consumers. But for e-tailers to succeed now means highlighting the many advantages that online shopping has over shopping in traditional stores, and making consumers feel confident with online purchases.

Search engines: what you want, when you want it. No matter how well a product is presented online or in a store, if customers cannot find it to begin with, it is not worth much.

Search engines are among the most valuable distinctions that make online shopping easier than shopping in person. Rather than scouring store after store, aisle after aisle for a particular product, Web sites allow consumers to cut through the clutter and search by key word to find what they are looking for instantly.

When set up properly, search engines also allow a company to suggest similar products when an exact match is not available. Someone searching for a blue coat may consider a gray one instead if it is offered in its place. Also, search engines can be useful tools for merchandising by suggesting additional products that complement or enhance a customer's selections.

Presentation: show and tell. You must present products in ways that clearly and effectively articulate their qualities and attributes. Clear, high-resolution pictures are essential. Customers should be able to click on products for enlarged views that illustrate texture, finish and detailing. Views from various angles are important, too, as they offer a well-rounded idea of what a product is really like, from its overall design to its size and shape.

In addition, you can maximize the appeal of a product by complementing pictures with thorough descriptions. In lieu of a salesperson, who can go into great detail about a product, “storied” merchandise can do all of the talking: storylike descriptions appear alongside a product and tell customers an abundance of details like where it came from, how it was made, who made it, how it was sourced, what its attributes are, etc.

It is important not to overdo it, however, by giving too much detail upfront. A brief description will suffice initially, and customers should be given the option to click on a “more info” button to get the whole story.

At your service. Successful online retailers put themselves in the consumer's place when bringing new products to their sites. Successful marketing online comes from predicting which questions consumers will ask and giving them the answers upfront, with straightforward presentations that are concise and simple. The second a person becomes confused or uncertain about a product, he may be just a click away from a competitor's site.

Unlike department stores, where good sales help is so often impossible to find, a good e-commerce company has the advantage of being able to give customers superb customer service right at their fingertips. Either by e-mail or by telephone, customers know that someone will always be available to answer their questions.

Always open. People lead busy lives, and that plays in the favor of the online retailer, as most bricks-and-mortar stores are limited in their hours of operation. E-commerce is a 24-hour-a-day business, which makes it a naturally appealing option for many people who simply do not have the time to go to a store.

E-tailers often report a spike in traffic at specific times of the day, and they can take advantage of this by offering special promotions, sales, contests and other events. These incentives are designed to make the shopping experience fun and distinctive and, in turn, reinforce the positive attributes of e-shopping. People love to shop, and customers who have a good time on a Web site will likely return again and again.

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