Why even highly local small businesses should embrace e-commerce

Intuit e-commerce strategist Craig Zarmer encourages SMBs to consider e-commerce as a way to forge tighter customer relationships.

According to some projections, e-commerce sales account for $1 of every $10 spent on discretionary purchases in the United States. The big retailers claim most of that money, about 67 percent, but that number is slowly creeping downward.

So when should your small business open a cyber-storefront? I explored this topic with Craig Zarmer, group product manager of Intuit Web sites, responsible for the company's e-commerce strategy. Among the things Zarmer recommends: consider multiple storefronts including Facebook, seek a solution that accommodates mobile shopping and administration, and don't forget to include your real-world contact particulars.

Why should a highly local small business invest in an e-commerce presence?

Craig Zarmer: I would first question whether these small businesses are as local as they think they are. For a surprisingly little amount of work you can get yourself out there. Even for a business that is truly a local business, I often hear their customers want to see the products. They might have read about [the company]. Even if [the business] truly doesn't want to sell online, there is still plenty of benefit to putting up an e-commerce type of Web site, because it is a way to show in detail what your products are. Maybe people want to shop at night, when you're not open.

In which industries will e-commerce make a big competitive difference?

When we talk about e-commerce, there is the classic sense of being product-based, there is also the idea of letting customers make appointments or taking reservations online.

When you talk about product-based businesses, people do well who are selling products that are somewhat unique. Manufacturers of unique products can even figure out at they can sell directly to consumers and cut out the middleman and simplify their life.

Beyond e-commerce, we are hearing about more and more hair salons, piano teachers, tennis coaches, massage therapists who are setting up scheduling as a way to grow their businesses and finding a way of making their clients life easier. They can see times that you are available, they can reserve it in advance, maybe pay for it upfront and even buy a gift for somebody. It's a growing story. I hesitate to say that there is a particular industry or vertical where it doesn't make sense.

How will smartphones and tablets affect e-commerce?

I think you are seeing it on two sides. Obviously, consumers are doing more and more shopping on the go. Or not necessarily on the go, they could be shopping at the dinner table or shopping in bed. They've got their smartphone or tablet handy. It is sometimes on the go, but it is also sometimes just because that is the device that they use most often. Clearly, you are going to see more and e-commerce sites have mobile-friendly offerings.

There is also a second part, which is the small-business owner who runs the e-commerce site wants the admin or the backside functionality available. They want to get the note that says, 'Hey your product has shipped.' Depending on their business, they may get tons of orders and end up watching them all of the time. Some businesses maybe don't get quite as many orders and when they see one, it is a call to action.

If the choice comes down to investing in mobile payments versus investing in e-commerce, which makes more sense? Or can you do both at the same time?

Increasingly, I don't think you have to make a choice. But if you really have to, it really comes down to your business type. Let's take the example of the small business that goes to fairs or the art and wine show circuit. Clearly they want their mobile payment capabilities while they are in the booth. But these are some of the most likely people to have a much broader range of products that they make or carry. I often run into these folks and they will often say, 'Let me show you something I didn't bring with me. You can order that from me right now via the Web site, or later after you have made your measurements, or whatever.'

Will e-commerce attract new customers or serve existing ones better?

Probably the biggest hope of people coming into this is that it will attract new customers. That it could be a whole new location, like the local mom-and-pop shop that has decided to go national or the manufacturer that has decided to sell direct to customers, not just wholesale. …

E-commerce is beautiful because it is natural to collect very valuable customer contact info as part of the checkout process. If you are the sort of business that has new products or you sell a staple and you can remind people to come back, you would be amazed at how much possibility there is for generating repeat business.

What specific features should a small business seek in an e-commerce solution?

It's very tempting to go for a one-channel story. For example, you want to get on Facebook or do a branded Web sites. We've learned that customers are everywhere and small businesses want to be everywhere. So the first thing I encourage small businesses to look at is a system that will help you be everywhere your customers might be. So, today the big thing is Facebook, and we have have some great stories of customers who have picked up our Facebook extension, which is part of our free service, and have significantly grown their business by adding that.

I think another thing is that there are some pieces to put together. So, you have a Web site, you have e-commerce, you have domain names and email, and the payment side. It can be challenging to pull these together.

One of the things we often hear from customers, and one of the reasons that we put together this bundle of services, is that it is so much easier when you can sign up once, talk to one business and just know that the pieces together and if they don't, that you can make one phone call to figure it out.