Five ways to enhance e-tailing

Strike it rich online yet? I didn't think so.Pushing an e-business into the black takes just as much work as it does in the 3D world.

Strike it rich online yet? I didn't think so.

Pushing an e-business into the black takes just as much work as it does in the 3D world. Sometimes, even more. So you should always be on the lookout for ways to boost e-sales.

I collect these kinds of tidbits like others collect baseball cards or coins. Some are dicey — we all get way too many messages from no-brain mass e-mailers. Some are decent, if unusable — like the pitches I've received for products with four-figure price tags. Other e-tailing enhancers, though, are worth passing along.

Sell at auction

Small businesses and entrepreneurs lean on online auctions for a slew of selling reasons, ranging from liquidation of overstock to its low-entry costs into e-tailing. But after talking to a bunch of businesspeople who use auction sites like eBay, Yahoo!, and Amazon to move merchandise, I think the smartest strategy is to think of dynamic pricing as a way to attract and acquire new customers.

It makes sense. The auction sites have a huge pool of potential buyers; eBay's among the top five most-visited sites month after month. And though it's not always dirt cheap, doing business at auction sites is very cost-effective in comparison to other customer acquisition tactics, such as direct mail.

By broadcasting at auction that you're a seller in your market — and remembering to put a link to your existing URL in those item descriptions — you not only make a sale, but draw new customers to your primary selling locale: your Web site.

Sell in a second (free) store

Not ready to test the e-commerce waters with a full-fledged virtual store? Then I suggest using a fixed-price sale strategy that's linked to a popular Web site.

Amazon.com's zShop is the best example of this I've seen. zShop is bundled with this book/CD/everything else-seller's online auctions, and are similarly priced for sellers: a dime to list an item, then a 1.25% to 5% commission when/if the item sells. (eBay's rumored to be considering some kind of fixed-price addition to its offerings.)

The idea, of course, is to list products you don't think work at auction, or those you have in quantity. Buyers, of course, can close a deal here immediately: there's none of the waiting around for the auction to close.

Selling at such sites may seem to eliminate the need for a real e-store — they are a relatively cheap way to get into online selling without bothering with bidding. But like auctions, I think they also make sense as part of an overall customer acquisition strategy. Think of them as a second store, something like an e-outlet companion to your primary e-commerce site.

Make something special

Many small business e-stores steal selling ideas from brick-and-mortar locales. One of the best to borrow is a weekly special.

Marked-down items, of course, can boost sales volume, but a weekly special — whether it's a sale or just pulling out parts of the inventory to highlight — make particularly good sense at an e-store. Since getting to an e-store is much easier than to a real one (which means, naturally, that it's also easier to get to a competitor's store), you want to encourage regular returns. You want customers to come back, but back for a good reason. Specials, say a sale posted every week on the same day, can entice good customers to become great ones.

Spread the news

Another way to bring back customers is to remind them that you're ready to meet their needs. Traditional stores often drop newsletters or reminder cards in the mail; you can do it, too, for even less with a broadcast e-mail.

Big-time Web sites (including this one) drive traffic with e-mail newsletters that highlight content. Your idea is to do the same, but by detailing specials or sales or new products at your store.

Acquiring customer names and e-mail addresses isn't tough. A prominently-displayed link to your regular mailing, where you ask for the customer's name and e-mail address, is a low-key way to gather necessary information. Another method, used extensively by brick-and-mortar businesses, is to run contests or give-aways that as part of the process, require name and e-mail registration.

Get personal when possible

Although the selling mechanism you're using precludes some face time with your customers, you can still get personal.

E-mail is the normal media for seller-to-buyer communication, so the key is to personalize your messages as much as possible. There are auto-responders — software which intercepts e-mail and generates a canned response based on criteria you've established — but they're often difficult to set up and don't always do the job. Most small e-tailers I've talked to rely on a more manual method: they generate e-mail responses to customers by cutting and pasting text they've created, often storing that text in a word processor, which they keep open beside their mail client.

That works, but you can dramatically speed up this kind of constant cut-and-paste with a simple program called ClipMate. (Download it from ZDNet's Downloads by clicking here.) This Clipboard enhancer automatically saves as many items as you like, lets you organize them into custom categories, and best of all, permanently retains these clipped items so you can later paste them into messages at will.