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Click or Brick

October 4, 2008

While at market last month, I attended a very interesting CFR round table about how retailers in our industry can and do use the Internet. It got me to thinking and. . . well,  you know we are in trouble when that happens.

A web site can do many different things. You can sell from it, use it as a source of information for your customers, create a community of consumers, or even use it as your design studio. Each of us has to decide why we want to have a web site but all of us have to realize we can’t get by without a web site. Think about this for a second. When asked, only two people at the round table had used the Yellow Pages in the last thirty days. On the other hand, every hand went up when they were asked how many had done a “Google” search for a company or product in the last month. It may have been a nonscientific poll, but I think it reflects our consumers who aren’t using the Yellow Pages to find us anymore. Instead, I think they are going directly to the Internet and doing a "Google" search for us. If you don’t have a web site, there is little chance you will appear in the list of hits returned by Google when your customer does a search for patio furniture.

Most specialty retailers have created information web sites. Sometimes, the site is no more complicated than a logo, store hours, phone number, and a map. But informational web sites can be so much more. If nothing else, the graphic design of the site is going to speak volumes about your store(s). If you carry high-end high-design goods, your site’s graphics should reflect that. Remember a picture is worth a thousand words.

You should have your contact info on the site, but make it interactive rather than static. Your “Contact Us” button could lead your customer to a form they can fill out which will then be automatically emailed to you. If your web site isn’t compelling, you may get a lot of input from users complaining about that. You can use that as an opportunity to encourage the consumer to come visit you and get “special” attention. If your site is more interesting, people who fill out the form are probably good prospects. Respond back to them in a way that gets them into the store or gets one of your sales consultants out to their home.

Have you ever thought about presenting your contact info as a 30 or 60 second video? You can do that on the Internet for very little money. The video can include beauty shots of your façade and the interior of your store. You might even have a short segment describing how to get to you from major highways.

Many retailers use their sites to educate consumers about outdoor furnishings. It is not unusual for their sites to have sections describing the pros and cons of different types of frame material. You could even include a section that describes how to maintain the different kinds of furniture you sell. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could refer consumers to your web site when they call to ask you how to clean the furniture they bought from you two years ago?

Consumers use the Internet to preshop. They want to see pictures of product as they decide what they want. The Internet is great for this but putting pictures of every product you carry on your site can not only be time consuming but is reinventing the wheel. Instead, your site could refer consumers to manufacturer’s web sites all of which will have complete catalogs for your consumer to browse through. But don’t just show a list of manufacturers you carry. Instead, categorize your vendors by the type of material they work in, their design aesthetic, and price points. Then, include a search function on your site, which allows the consumer to search for vendors using these qualifiers. The resultant list of manufacturers will be much more useful to them.

Now, here’s the tricky part, there are lots of ways to link to manufacturer’s web site. One way allows the vendor’s web site to open in the same window your site was in, replacing it completely. The problem with this is the customer won’t have an easy way to navigate back to your site. A better way to handle the link is to have the vendor’s site open in a new window while leaving your web site window open. Finally, you could open the vendor’s site in a window that is still part of your web site including your logo and navigation buttons. You will have to get the vendor to approve this last option and most won’t allow you to do that. In fact, you will have to get approval just to link to most of your vendor’s web sites. In this day and age, most will, but there are still a few that don’t let anyone link to their web site to protect their distribution channels.

On my web site, I added a feature that allows my customers to design their patio with a computer assisted layout program. Not only do our customer use it in the comfort of their own home, my sales consultants will use it with them here at the store while they are closing the sale. If the customer knows the approximate size and shape of their patio, this software shows them what will fit and what won’t. They never leave with the excuse they have to go home and measure. To try this out for yourself, go to my web site:

http://www.poolpatio.com

and click on the “Planner” button on the left side of the home page.

By this time, you are probably asking yourself, “How much will a web site cost to develop?” It is true you can pay a lot for a super duper web site. But, a good web site doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. The actual writing of the web site isn’t too complicated and could be done by a student at your local college who is majoring in computer science. You should, however, expect to pay a professional graphics designer to come up with the look of your web site. That is not something you want to skimp on. The funds to pay for development of a web site could come from the savings you make cutting back on your Yellow Pages advertising. I am not recommending getting out of the Yellow Pages altogether. I just think you could cut back substantially, pay for a good web site and get better results.

Another tip, be sure you can update the web site yourself. For example, we have a monthly special listed on our web site. My web site developer made it easy for me  to  change this body copy so that I don’t have to pay a techie to do it every month. And, while we are at it, it is important to keep your web site current and to change it up occasionally.  A site that stays the same month after month will turn off returning viewers and they will stop coming to your site.

There was a lot more covered at the round table but I don’t have the space and you probably don’t have the time right now. In my next blog, I will go cover some of the points that were made about etailing.

Yours in confused retailing, Bruce