Spiff up your site for holiday visitors

Although people are going online in bigger numbers than ever, they're also dissatisfied with the experience. Here are five ways to tweak your e-commerce site for maximum performance, usability--and profit.

Hope you got some rest this summer, because you won't be able to relax between now and the end of the year. With just another six weeks or so before the holiday selling season swings up to full speed, you don't have much time to get ready. That includes prepping your small business's Web site to bring some serious dollars to the bottom line.

And making your e-commerce efforts pay off is important, even more so than this time last year. Worldwide online sales this holiday season are projected to be nearly double last year's figures, says the Gartner Group, an Internet research firm. In North America it'll be slightly smaller, but still a substantial gain: Gartner estimates that domestic online sales will be up about 70 percent from 1999.

But while the news from the till is promising, the news coming from customers is bittersweet. Although people are shopping online in bigger numbers than ever, they're also dissatisfied with a lot of the online experience. One hard-to-ignore indicator: about two-thirds of online shoppers ditch their shopping cart (and the items therein) before reaching the pay part of the site.

You need to make sure your customers aren't bailing out of your shopping experience at rates like that. If 65 out of every 100 visitors to your e-store abandon $20 in merchandise, you're out $1,300. That's not chump change to a small shop: you can pay a minimum-wage employee from Thanksgiving to the end of the year on that.

Now's the time to take a good look at your e-store for problems which may cause customers to call it quits. I've come up with five ways you can tweak your e-commerce site for maximum performance, usability -- and profit.

Tune up your e-store

Is your home-grown Web site really ready for 2000 holiday season? How do you know?

Your first job should be to check and double-check your site to make sure it's fool-proof for customers. Although you may have spent hours developing the site, are you sure that every link is working, that pages download fast enough to keep buyers from quitting, or that the site is even up?

A host of tools, some free and some low-cost, are available to the small business Web site manager. Take the time today to use those tools so you're confident in the e-store's functionality come the heavy selling season. Among them:

Link verifiers. NetMechanic's HTML Toolbox checks links, as well as several other Web site metrics, including download times and browser incompatibilities, for just $35 a year when if your site is 100 pages or less. The cost jumps to $200 annually for sites between 101 and 400 pages.

Download analyzers. Is your Web store stuffing too much data down the phone lines? You may not have a clue if you're using a fast DSL or cable connection, something most of your customers don't have. NetMechanic's HTML Toolbox will display a table showing download times using various connection speeds, from 14.4Kbps to ISDN. And its free GIFBot tool will optimize GIF and JPEG images (the two most popular formats for Web images) so that they, and thus the page, loads faster. MyComputer.com's SiteMechanic does all this for free, although its GIF optimizer isn't yet available.

Traffic analyzers. When you want to know how many customers are getting to your site, and once there, what they're doing and where they're going, you need to analyze traffic data. MyComputer.com's SuperStats program tracks visitors hourly, weekly, and monthly in real-time, shows you where those buyers are coming from on the Web, and details the parts of your Web site where they spend the most time. By digging into the reports which SuperStats generates, you may be able to spot places where you're unknowingly leading them away from a purchase, or losing their interest. SuperStats costs $19.95 a month, or $200 a year; a free version of SuperStats is available, but requires that you place an ad banner on your site.

Downtime watchdogs. Unless you're willing to plant yourself in front of the computer 24/7, you won't know that the server hosting your e-store is down until customer orders plummet. By then it's too late: you've likely lost those potential customers, who have lots of other, now-open-for-business e-shops ready to take their business.

The answer: a monitoring service which automatically tests your site throughout the day, then notifies you by pager or e-mail when it discovers a problem. MyComputer.com's Watchdog costs $19.95 a month and up (depending on how often it checks the server); NetMechanic's Server Check, which has a set 15-minute interval between pings, costs $9.99 a month.

The Web site itself is just part of the infrastructure necessary to close a sale. Customer service, including the old-fashioned real person on a phone, is the other. Read on for tips on how to add the human element to your e-sales strategy.

Give customers solid service

Even online customers sometimes want a real clerk to chat up. According to global research firm Datamonitor, the average business could have improved its online sales by almost 35 percent last year if it had provided better customer service. And although having a live clerk answer calls isn't the only way to boost customer service -- a thorough FAQ to the purchasing part of your Web site can do wonders -- it's a critical part. Your customer support staff is the last defense against customers abandoning online orders because they can't get answers to their questions on the Web site.

Setting up a customer service desk to handle online sales may be more than the smallest businesses think they can afford, but the payoff in increased sales can easily outstrip the cost. Make sure you prominently position a link to your e-store's customer service page at the entrance to your store, and post a phone number, preferably toll-free, in a spot and size that's impossible to miss. Likewise, you may want to put that phone number on every product and order page, much like some mail order catalogs do, so that customers don't have to search through the site to find it.

Don't think that you can assemble the infrastructure in time for the shopping season? Then investigate contracting with a company which specializes in online customer service. They come in all sizes, from the small Northwest Direct to the much larger netCustomer.com. Some of these providers wait at the other end of the phone to take calls from your customers. Others essentially act as an application service provider, integrating "call me" buttons (which instigate a call to the customer when she enters her phone number) or live computer chat features to your e-store.

You're not through with the early-fall checkup quite yet. I have three more tips that can help you sell this season. Click on to find out if they suit your small business.

Take these tips to the bank

You can do more than just tune up your Web store and figure out a way to add customer service capabilities. Here are three more tips to mull over as you prep for the holiday sales flood.

1. Give as much detailed information about the variable costs of buying online (e.g., shipping and sales taxes) as early as possible in the ordering process. Customers who aren't told how much those costs will be until after the "Click here to order" button appears -- or worse, are never told at all -- are the ones most likely to bail out before the purchase is complete. Some tools in this category are free for the asking; UPS, for instance, offers its Rates & Services Selection tool to anyone who registers at its site. When integrated into your site -- sample HTML code is provided, as are instructions on how to add it to your Web page -- the tool lets customers select the type of shipping and displays the cost.

2. Repeat users drive online sales and deliver the biggest bang to your bottom line. (Want proof? A Boston Consulting Group study back in March found that just five percent of the online shoppers account for more than 40 percent of sales.) Make it easier for those repeat customers to buy again. One way: record the information provided by the customer the first time she shops, so that she doesn't have to fill in every blank in a form when she returns. You can track arriving customers using cookies. I recommend reading "Intro to Cookie Mastery" for a quick overview -- and some hands-on coding examples -- on how to add cookies to your e-store or site.

3. Enticing holiday shoppers with competitive prices is a given, but how about going the extra yard and offering them more? One idea is to offer free shipping, a tactic taken by an increasing number of big-time Web stores. You might want to try to drive early shoppers to buy by running the free shipping offer up to December 1. That can push some sales earlier in the ordering season, giving you breathing room for the final three weeks of the selling season.

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