A booming economy and an increased consumer awareness of the World Wide Web is widely expected to give electronic retailers the merry Christmas they have been looking for this year. Others will be wondering how they missed the sleigh.
“There is a tremendous increase in dollars spent on line expected over last year’s and estimates range from $7 billion to $20 billion,” said Bernadette Tiernan, author of “e-tailing.” (Dearborn, $24.99), a book outlining ways to succeed as an electronic-commerce merchant.
“But it takes more than just having a Web site with an e-commerce element. E-tailers need to prepare their site and business for increased holiday traffic,” she said in a telephone interview.
Internet watchers are predicting this holiday season will be a watershed for
purchases on the World Wide Web.
The National Retail Federation (www.nrf.com) estimates e-commerce transactions will amount to less than 4 percent, or $7.4 billion, of total retail sales. But more than 38 million people, representing more than 50 percent of those on line, will be spending between $1 and $500 each on holiday purchases on line.
One of the advantages of the Internet over a bricks-and-mortar environment is that all e-tailers can take advantage of unlimited amounts of holiday shoppers if each of those stores technically meets the needs of Web surfers, provides customer service and is able to fulfill orders quickly and correctly.
Not meeting those needs can lead to disastrous results. Toys R Us had one of the first publicized holiday meltdowns after its recent “Big Book” promotion. The retailer boosted its Web site to handle a quadruple increase in users, but when 10 times that number tried to log in, cyber-chaos ensued.
“Their servers shut down and no one could get into the site,” Ms. Tiernan said. “One shopper told me that once she did get in, more than 90 percent of the items she wanted were already sold out.”
While it may be too late to start an aggressive campaign for this season, there are ways to prepare for the post-holiday shopper who will return to the “dot com,” or Web-site store.
“Whether for the holidays or every day, the smartest merchants are approaching their promotions from multiple directions,” Ms. Tiernan said. “The same rules of marketing apply to the virtual store as to the physical store.”
Ms. Tiernan suggests that a first step is creating an attractive retail center and distribution method. She suggests retailers look at A Basket Full of Wishes (www.abasketfullofwishes.com) to see a retailer that is working toward e-commerce.
“Going straight to an e-commerce element might not be the best idea,” Ms. Tiernan said. “Instead, first produce an attractive on-line catalog that requires the purchaser to send in an order or to call in an order.
“In this way you can provide personalized service, regulate the amount of orders you take in and you are sure that you have the product available for every order so as not to disappoint a client.”
Ms. Tiernan also suggests that retailers expand their Web presence by trading links with other sites. For instance, a site that sells corporate gifts would want to trade links with another site servicing the corporate market that is not in direct competition with it.
Other ways to get noticed include renting space within an on-line mall.
Looking for examples of e-tail Web sites that meet Ms. Tiernan’s criteria, the Browser found some local spots worthy of a surf.
* Sterling, Va.’s own America Online and its Shop@AOL.Com (www.aol.com/shopping/home.html) is not pretty, but it does give users direct access to hundreds of on-line merchants, gift catalogs and entertainment ideas.
The site uses a search engine that allows users to click into categories, for example “apparel,” and then choose “women’s apparel” to find links to retailers with an Internet presence, such as Lands End (www.landsend.com), J.C. Penney (www.jcpenney.com) or jcrew (www.jcrew.com).
There are also links to e-retail-only sites, such as ibeauty.com (www.ibeauty.com) and Styleclick.com (www.styleclick.com).
* Arlington’s Sue Heilbronner has thrown her hat into the cyber-basket with her line of infant and toddler millennium-inspired Y2Wear (www.y2wear.com). Featuring a line of rompers ($14.95), warm-up sets ($17.95), playsuits ($17.95), baseball caps ($11.95) and sweatshirts ($17.95).
Ms. Heilbronner, whose company is called Y2Tot, tries to meet the needs of a variety of shoppers by offering multiple ordering options, including electronic, mail, fax or phone.
“I have found that men are frequent customers of Y2Wear,” Ms. Heilbronner said. “Though I have not done so this year, next year, I plan on placing print advertisements in men’s magazines as it is hard for the small merchant to be noticed in all of cyberspace.”
* Wooly Knits (www.woolyknits.com) is a local e-retailer that also has a physical store location. Located in McLean, the store features unique, hand-dyed and specialty yarns. This retailer does not handle transactions on line, requiring buyers to either e-mail or call in their credit-card number and address.
The yarn shop makes sales internationally, having recently shipped orders to Australia, France, Finland and South Africa. Owner Donna Barnako found that in recent months, the number of people coming into the shop or calling who have seen the Web site has increased.
“We prefer to work personally with each customer and find that it often requires more than one e-mail to make sure that they are ordering the item they want,” Mrs. Barnako said. “We would miss that personal interaction if orders were sent in electronically. I prefer that the Web site provide an experience as personal as if the person walked into the store.”
To keep her electronic business brisk, Mrs. Barnako plans on adding new informational elements, such as a “difficult stitch guide” being created using digital photography to go along with the free design patterns that are currently being offered.
* Have an interesting site? Write to Joseph Szadkowski at the Business Browser, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send e-mail (email@example.com).