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Most Online Businesses Do Not Offer What Consumers Demand

By Bob McElwain
Posted Friday, June 20, 2003

There's so much data about the Web floating about, it's difficult to make sense of it all. And even more difficult to plan based on the information you have. However, it does seem clear that B2B (Business to Business) transactions are up, and are likely to move up even more strongly. Reports indicate very large increases in capital spending by major companies to take full advantage of savings to be had in buying on the Web.

Some reports regards B2C (Business to Consumer) transactions paint glowing pictures of increases in this area as well. But my hunch is, the "glow" mentioned isn't as bright as claimed. Certainly the volume of business is not. My conviction is that online companies hoping to attract offline consumers have a very long way to go.

A Typical B2C Site

They're usually well done. Navigation is pretty good. Buy buttons abound. With lots of links to further information or comparisons.

But the information provided is pretty skimpy. And the comparisons are often limited. Okay, this handheld has 2 megs of memory and this one has 8 megs. The novice has questions: "Which is best for me? And why?"

On most sites, such answers aren't available. In fact you may not even find an email address to which to send a question. It's as if these companies assume you know all about what you need before you arrive.

My Introduction To Palm Pilots

I recently became interested in Palms and would like to have one. But I also need the software or whatever to convert text to a format this unit can display. My guess is that files to be read on a Palm must be downloaded to a desktop computer, then loaded into the Palm with a physical or software interface. But I'm not sure.

Three hours of looking at sites loaded with products and buy buttons, got me nowhere close to any answer. And at this writing, I'm as uninformed as when I began. (To be fair, I haven't yet checked further.)

Will Consumers Commit The Time?

Most realize that for your small online business to attract buyers, your site must be super simple to navigate, have flawless paths to completed sales, and provide efficient service and outstanding support. But these and related notions will only take you so far.

Will consumers begin flocking to the Web only to spend hours trying to figure what model of whatever best suits their needs? In cameras, there is a vast selection. In digicams as well. And even with something as simple as an audio recorder, the same holds true. I seriously doubt your visitors will volunteer much time to find information that should be readily available.

The Present Trend Will Continue

So long as major sites can profit from sales generated with pictures, brief descriptions and skimpy details, they will continue to operate in this mode. But most consumer dollars will continue to be spent offline where information needed is available.

In selling products on the Web, all possible must be done to emulate the offline buying experience. Anticipate and answer completely all questions that may arise in a visitor's mind. There must be sufficient information for even a novice to make a good buy decision. While you likely won't show this to all visitors, it's got to be there. Possibly as an option on the more-info page.

Until this happens on your site, you will not sell much to people unaquainted with your products. And you will not attract many offline consumers. Further, until this becomes the norm for online businesses, don't expect any mass movement of offline consumers to the Web.

But Hey, That's A Lot Of Work

You bet it is. And time-consuming as well. But I won't be buying a Palm until I find a site that cheerfully provides the answers I need. And what may matter more, responds promptly to an email.

Further, I want to feel confident I'm buying from a pro who can and will support the product. Give me that stuff about hardware support is referred to the manufacturer, and I'm gone.

But given a site with a solid business person behind it, then my question becomes simple. Which model should I buy? Likely I'll get good advice in this as well.

And price won't matter much. If I pay an extra $20 over some discount site, so what? Call it insurance, if you like. I know where to turn if I hit a snag. A bit extra means little in comparison. And the same is true for lots and lots of people.

Forget Price Shoppers

Some businesses are concerned about the shopping bots, certain they'll get beat out on price on most any product in common demand. While there are those who shop price, I suggest you don't need this kind of business. You'll likely lose a sale on another item to a site with a price even lower than yours.

Build a site that satifies all the needs of a person brand new to a product, or one even new to the Web. A site that also satisfies the needs of experts. If you demonstrate your expertise and credibility, your visitors will buy without much concern for price. And what matters more, do this right, and they'll be back.

If you have a mechanic who takes great care of your car, one whom you've come to trust, chances are you drop your car off, explain the problem, ask him to fix it, and leave without more than a mild interest in the cost. Since he's never treated you unfairly in the past, it's unlikely he'll do so now.

Build this kind of reputation on your website, and you can safely ignore price shoppers. But above all, provide information to satisfy the needs of novices and experts, and all those in between. Since most don't do so, this may give you precisely the competitive edge you need to beat your competition.