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Get Ready to Sell Online

Adapted from content excerpted from the American Express® OPEN Small Business Network


The Internet is a great promotional vehicle, research tool, and communication channel for connecting with clients and customers. But in today's marketplace small businesses are discovering that the real payoff of an online presence is electronic commerce: using the Web to sell your small business' products and services. Selling online reduces your business expenses, provides added convenience for your customers and opens the door to a global market for your products and services.

If you want to succeed as an online merchant you have to understand where your products fit within the competitive landscape and be clear about your online sales objectives. In addition, you need to know how to reach your virtual customers and how to meet their needs. Ask yourself the following five questions to start your journey to selling online.

Will my product or service work online?

Not every product lends itself to e-commerce. The items that tend to generate the greatest revenue are commodity consumer products (such as books, CDs, or videos), technology products (computers and software), and hard-to-find products or those with a highly specialized audience (rare coins, specialized craft supplies, regional/gourmet foods, or collectibles, for example). As a rule, if a product sells well through a catalog or other direct channels, it can be promoted on the Web.

Before you take the online plunge, be sure to analyze the competition carefully. If your product is already being sold by a large online competitor, you may have trouble generating profits through your site. Instead, focus your efforts on a specialized niche. For example, if you run a small bookstore, your online competitors would be giants Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. If you market your site as the premier resource for children's books, or better yet, children's picture books, you may be able to generate more sales.

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What role will my site play in my overall sales strategy?

Before you begin executing your site, consider exactly what you'd like to accomplish through e-commerce. Will the Web be your primary sales vehicle or will it be a way to supplement your existing revenues? This will help you shape the content of your site and may also guide decisions about site location, product selection, payment and order processing. Take the time to put together a plan of execution that addresses not only your goals for taking your business online, but also financial assumptions, challenges and concerns. This document will help to ensure that your investment in Web commerce pays off.

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What features and information should I include on my site?

When designing your site's content, consider the type of information your buyers will require before they purchase. Take a look at e-commerce URLs that you admire and dislike. Chances are you'll find some common threads among the good sites. The graphics will most likely be clean and relevant; they will download quickly; navigation will be well thought out; and the steps for ordering will be clearly outlined. You might also want to review your competitors' sites, as well as high-revenue sites that are unrelated to your business, to get ideas for your site's content and features. Analyzing these sites' sales messages, promotions and guarantees will give you a sense of how they encourage visitors to buy.

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What is the best venue for my product?

The location of your virtual storefront is just as important as a traditional store's location. You'll need to decide if you want to set up your Web site as part of an online mall, or if you'd like your site to exist independent of other vendors. Online malls -- sites that rent out space to merchants who reside at the mall's URL - have not been nearly as successful as many had hoped. Specialty malls -- sites that offer products and services related to a particular theme such as golf or boating -- have proved better able to meet consumer demand for selection, speed, and convenience. Setting up an independent site will give you the greatest control over the operation and promotion, but also requires the most work. You will need to determine where the buyers are, design ways to reach them, and manage ordering and fulfillment.

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How will I collect money from my Web sales?

To succeed online, it's essential to make it easy for your customers to pay you. Credit and charge cards are the most common solution. This requires you to set up a merchant account, or, if you already have merchant status, receive authorization to accept charges over the Internet.

Although online payment is convenient for both merchant and customer, some of your consumers may not currently feel comfortable ordering online. For these clients, offer toll-free phone ordering, fax ordering and a mail order option.

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