You've read about the success of e-commerce giants like and Dell Computer. You've seen America Online attract more than 10 million subscribers. And now, you'd like to measure the chances of your own business' online success and to develop a winning strategy for generating your own big-volume sales.

The E-Commerce Times Small Business Advisor brings you time-proven strategies that are working for others, and should be part of your plan for selling online.

Let's first start by understanding your target market. On the Internet, people tend to be relatively savvy in their purchasing choices. You can expect a well-informed consumer who is aware of multiple sources from which to buy. Your first strategic move, if so, is to evaluate your competition in terms of finding ways to distinguish your own offerings from the rest.

Price and Added-Value
There are two main ways to distinguish your products from your competitors. The first is on the basis of price. In general, it would make sense for shoppers to pay less for an identical product, all else being equal. For this reason, the second way to distinguish your products is to provide "value-added" features where the consumer may be willing to pay slightly more for an equivalent product, if the consumer feels that s/he is getting an additional benefit. For example, superior customer support, easy exchange policies, and rush delivery might sway consumers in your favor. If you are offering value-added features, make sure to let visitors to your site know that clearly and quickly.

Fewer Unknowns
Another strategy of online product-positioning is eliminating unknowns. In general, consumer confidence levels have been steadily improving so far as purchasing directly over the Internet. However, offering standard, brand name products has made the consumer's choice to purchase online, even easier. For example, you can expect the consumer to be more likely to purchase a Hewlett Packard LaserJet 6MP rather than a generic brand printer, because having the brand name eliminates uncertainty about what they are actually getting. Generic or less known products increase the number of "unknowns" and may result in online "window-shopping" and comparing rather than actual purchasing.

The "Order by Phone" Alternative
It's true that direct sales online are skyrocketing. The latest reports claim that consumers are spending over $4 Billion in Internet shopping. However, successful online store owners will tell you that approximately half their orders are actually processed by phone, after the consumer has browsed their Web site. So, in addition to providing an online credit card processing mechanism, part of your online strategy should include a plan to provide personal phone support. Keep in mind that the Internet is "open" 24 hours a day, so be sure to include the hours during which shoppers can expect to reach an order processor, next to the phone number on your site.

Handling and Shipping Issues
The "back-end" issues of product handling and shipping should also play a role on your strategy. If shipping charges will significantly impact the price of the product, then shoppers might prefer to do their purchasing at a retail outlet, rather than online.

Also, ease-of-shipping on your part is an additional factor. To handle volume orders, standard product size might be of great importance. For example, music CDs are well-suited for online selling because they are all of similar size and weight, allowing the merchant to plan for standard shipping boxes and less time spent in handling and preparing to ship.

Forcing A Square Peg into a Round Hole
While it may be tempting to think that all products sell equally well offline as on the Internet, it's important to make an objective judgement call as to whether your products are suitable for sale ononline. The factors discussed above are meant to be just a few guidelines to consider. Rather than wasting resources on developing an online store to sell a product which is not well-suited for sale on the Internet, it is usually much preferable to set out your strategy ahead of time and make a more productive choice from the beginning. Also, remember that just because your competitors have Websites that offer products similar to yours, it does not mean that they are actually getting orders from their products. Some products may be better suited for marketing and promotion on the Internet, rather than for direct sales.

Surely, there exist more strategic product positioning issues than we can cover in this brief report, but hopefully, these factors will help you to identify other outstanding issues in planning for your online selling success.

Copyright 1999 Triad Commerce Group, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in any form without written permission.

Published on: Oct 20, 1999