Jeff Jenkins is the owner of Leonards New England, a retailer of antique furniture based in Seekonk, Mass. He still tells the story with a sense of wonder in his voice. Never did it occur to him that he could sell an $18,000 antique bed to a customer in Australia without the customer ever setting foot in his store! When he put up his website several years ago, he saw it primarily as an informational tool for his customers. The decision to add e-commerce capability was an afterthought. Who ever heard of selling antique furniture, retailing for thousands of dollars, over the Internet? He's a believer today. The Internet is the fastest growing segment of his business.

Most small retailers recognize that having a website can be a valuable marketing tool, providing potential customers with important information, but not all recognize that the Internet represents a significant opportunity for capturing additional business.

Here are everal thoughts to keep in mind as you consider developing an e-commerce website.

  1. The market is there. Your retail business is thriving because you've carved out a niche with customers who place a high value on your product offerings, knowledge and service. But don't assume that your customer base is limited to the geographical reach of your store or stores. Just as there are local customers for your products, there are also national and even international customers. The Internet is increasingly becoming the marketplace of choice for many shoppers interested in niche or specialty products.
  2. Building and managing a successful ecommerce website will require skills and expertise you may not have in-house. Outsourcing this work will provide you with the skills and expertise you need, but not necessarily the detailed, nuanced understanding of your products and customers. Depending upon the breadth of your product offerings and the sophistication of the website you want, building and managing it in-house may justify a full-time hire.
  3. You must build a website that is both informative and inviting to potential customers, and search engine friendly. Your customers will find your site via search engines such as Google or Yahoo. They will index and rank your site, based on a number of factors, including key word density, page titles and backward links, which will determine where your site will fall in the search results when potential customers come looking for you.
  4. Just as you focus on critical metrics to track the performance of your retail business, you will need to track the effectiveness of your website. You will want to track the number of hits to your site, the key words used to find your site, your positioning in search engines by key words, and then as sales begin to build, sales per hit, sales by key word, amongst many, many others. What you track will largely be dependent upon the specific nature of your business, products and website.
  5. Tweak, tweak, tweak. As you learn what is working well for you and what is not, you will need to constantly revise and update your website. In addition to the normal additions and deletions to product offerings, you will need to tweak your copy to add key words and increase key word density. And the search engines will re-index your site more frequently if it has changed each time their "crawlers" come through.
  6. Keep an eye on the competition. Just as you closely monitor your retail competition, you must also monitor your Internet competition. But in addition to keeping an eye on their product assortments and prices, you must also monitor the quality and performance of their websites. Are their presentations cleaner? Are their links between pages easier to follow? Do they have greater keyword density in their copy? Are they using keywords that you haven't considered? Most importantly, are they coming up higher on search engine results for critical key words, thus generating a greater number of hits to their site?
  7. Patience isn't just a virtue, it's a necessity. You won't necessarily start taking orders the day after you put up your website. While you may start seeing orders fairly quickly, it will probably take six to 12 months before you start seeing a consistent, meaningful volume of business.

If you are a small retailer, and haven't thought about creating an e-commerce presence on the Internet, think again. You are most likely leaving sales on the table, and high margin sales at that. The sales won't happen overnight, but the potential payback can be eye opening. Another owner I worked with told me that his Internet business had grown to be so significant that he was beginning to wonder if he was still a retailer with a website or had instead become an e-tailer that also happened to have several stores. Imagine that!

Postscript: The Leonards New England website is a wonderful example of what a small, specialty retailer can do to build a compelling site. Jeff Jenkins intuitively understood from the beginning that he had to engage his potential customers for them to fully appreciate the value of his products. As a result, his website incorporates print, audio and video to tell his story. By the way, the Leonards New England website was built, and is maintained, entirely in-house. I encourage you to take a look, and a listen, at