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E-commerce or not, Web presence vital

Web marketing must be part of merchandising strategy


Source: Northern Colorado Business Report

Author: Maryjo Faith Morgant

Google. Scroll. Click. Whip out the credit card, and ka-ching! Next day delivery.

The Internet has revolutionized merchandising, as fingers do the walking over keyboards instead of ads in printed directories.

DoubleClick, an advertising technology company, states, "No medium since black-and-white television has penetrated 50 percent of U.S. households as quickly as the Internet."

Web presence has become an indispensable prong in any worthwhile marketing strategy, and local retailers are following the trend, with product displays, availability, shipping information and increasingly, online purchasing available on their Web sites. But capturing a decent slice of the market depends not only on the type of product for sale, but also the target consumers and how comfortable they are purchasing without any human interaction.

Scot Lee, member services coordinator for the Loveland Chamber of Commerce, points out the huge difference between e-commerce and Web presence. "Cost (to the retailer) is the biggest factor, setting up technology for online sales," he explained.

Lee estimates that 40 to 60 percent of chamber members have a Web presence, but do not actually sell online. "E-commerce is another form of the purchasing process. It will continue to develop and grow, but will not replace the one-on-one purchasing experience. It all goes back to the shopper and if they are comfortable shopping online."

Some transactions, especially those that require standing in line in the real world, lend themselves to cyberspace more readily than others.

Class registration, for example.

Unless students need something out of the ordinary, 85 to 90 percent of University of Northern Colorado and 99 percent of Colorado State University students register and pay for classes online. Poudre School District's Community Learning Centers has experienced steady growth in online registration over the past five years, now at 90 percent. Municipal recreation venues in the area register 40 percent of their total participants online, and Loveland golf courses even offer online tee time scheduling.

The 24/7 convenience makes purchasing entertainment tickets online is a no-brainer. Both Bas Bleu Theatre and the Lincoln Center report drawing out-of-towners and new accounts through Web sales, which make up more than 20 percent of their totals. Arts Alive has launched a combined ticket sales Web site at to sell tickets to multiple Fort Collins artistic venues.

Houska Automotive Services Inc. uses an interactive Web site to schedule repair orders and an e-mail reminder system for service/oil changes. Presently fewer than 10 percent of appointments are made online, but it is growing exponentially since they instituted the convenience in June, said Houska's John Monks

Bricks and clicks

Other businesses still require the human touch. Florists, in particular, employ both telephone and online order gatherers, such as Teleflora and FTD, for their delivery business. Kathy Udy, owner of Audra Rose Floral in Fort Collins, reports only a small percentage of their business actually comes over the Internet.

Although the hospitality industry in general, and national lodging chains in particular, make a large percentage of reservations over interactive online booking systems, Windsor's Super 8 Motel manager Mindy Song says 85 percent of their business comes over the phone, and only about 15 percent comes through the Internet. Still, 15 percent is nothing to sneeze at.

This sentiment is echoed by Wild Lane Bed and Breakfast owner Steven Wild.

"We tried an online reservation service, but it was tedious enough to make it undesirable for us. Although a Web site is essential, 75 percent of our guests contact us by e-mail to make reservations."

Owner Christie Prince of Cherokee Park Guest Ranch in Livermore says 99 percent of inquiries from all over the world come through the Internet. Bookings, though, are made most often by telephone, where potential guests ask questions and gain confidence in the person and services on the other end of the line.

Sather's Jewelers seek a personal relationship with customers, an experience not available online. Gemologist Julie Sather-Browne confirms while the store posts catalog and contact information online, one-on-one transactions are a must.

"Moreover, by making purchases in your community, you support the local economy, something we think is very important," she added.

Real estate offices now feature properties online because buyers look there first, even though they won't be buying a house online. Jim Madden of Coldwell Banker says the Internet has changed the way they do business. "It used to be that people called their agents when they saw yard signs. Now people already know several properties they want to see."

Wendy Lampe, of Dellenbach Motors, stresses the importance of having inventory available online. "Customers research before they get here," Lampe said. "Purchases actually begin online with price quotes and credit applications, then sales are finalized in person."

In September, the dealership's Web site averaged 85 unique visits a day.

Online only

Then there are the growing number of businesses that do not have an actual store location anywhere, and sell exclusively over the Internet. Otter Products LLC in Fort Collins depends on contract sales and referrals for the largest part of their sales, but still sees a steady 15 percent of purchases online. Brian Thomas, director of sales and marketing, believes Web-only stores are the "new bricks and mortar" of this century.

"The Web site is our way of having customers come into our store and see what we are about, our culture and image," Thomas said.

Fort Collins-based Alicia's Attic sells quilting tools, patterns and books, doing 45 percent of its business online. "I can always tell where and when my episode of HGTV airs; I get a rash of orders from that area," owner Marci Baker said. She got into Web retailing when her ever-enlarging customer base needed catalogs.

Rob Denise, owner of Trailhead Web Design and Web Hosting in Fort Collins, dropped his company's ad in the telephone directory; over the last six months his Web-only listing brought in 90 percent of new clients. He says many of his customers start off with just a Web site, and expand later to e-commerce.

Navigating the maze of Website construction, design, and maintenance can be facilitated by a good Web host who helps retailers gain visibility to search engines by the choice and placement of keywords and meta tags, and judicious listing in directories.

As an independent distributor of ForeverGreen, Deborah Davis said that her health and wellness product sales have increased 60 percent since she began advertising online with a sponsored ad through Google and Yahoo networks.

"The five-cents-per-click price is well worth it, as is the yearly fee for the lead capture page," Davis said. Following up only with people who are interested in her product is a huge improvement over word of mouth and the handful of potential customers she used to contact daily.

Just in case you were wondering, Jeremy Rees of the Fort Collins Sales Tax Office said if a purchase is made online and shipped outside Fort Collins, that sale is not taxed by the city.

Doug Hoffman, professor of marketing at Colorado State University sums up the situation for today's retailers. "It is hard to gauge the success of a Web site only through sales. Informed buyers have already educated themselves before they come into your store."

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