From the July 1997 issue of Startups

By establishing a site for selling your goods or services on the Web, you can attract customers worldwide. While many businesses use their Web sites merely to advertise their businesses, they are missing out on a great opportunity to make effortless sales. With a little planning, your Web site can actually be making sales while you sleep! Here are some ways that you can use a Web site to generate sales.

Setting Up A Sales Site

The two most important factors to consider for a sales site are organization and security. If your site will comprise many pages, it is a good idea to draw an organizational chart of your entire site beforehand to ensure that all pages are linked to your home page.

Barry Gainer, owner of the Indian River Gift Fruit Co. (http://www.giftfruit.com/ in Titusville, Florida, says, "Before we started, we studied a lot of Internet sites that sell food, flowers and gifts. After we started, we asked our customers for feedback and tried to develop that into a site that worked. We've sold about $250,000 of fruit on the Internet in about a year. We market the site on America Online, CompuServe, Prodigy and on the Web to make sure that people know we're out there. We have our Internet address on every catalog that goes out of the store, on every fruit box, on any point-of-purchase material, on our recipe books and in radio and TV ads. Small-business owners who are thinking of selling on the Internet should realize that, no matter how big your competitor is, on the Internet, everybody is 14 inches tall. We like to call the Internet the `great equalizer' for small business."

As Internet product manager at InfoImage (http://www.infoimage.com/), a Phoenix software company, Jennifer Hooper is an expert at planning and developing Web documents of all types. She creates and maintains pages of information about company services and software products.

"The old adage that you only have one chance to make a good first impression is absolutely true on the Web," Hooper says. "Companies selling their products or services must make sure that visitors can easily move around their Web site, that pages load as quickly as possible--there must be a balance between cool graphics and loading speed--and that there is an e-mail address or phone number for those with questions or comments. Once those pieces are in place, the second most important factor is security, especially if companies are going to conduct electronic credit-card transactions over the Web. InfoImage is planning this, but we have not yet implemented it. Before we introduce it, we want to make absolutely sure that we investigate all the avenues."

You can learn about credit-card transactions, security, and other online sales information by visiting the Wilson Internet Services site

(http://www. wilson.web.com/), which is discussed in "Selling Sources."

Buying online is a relatively new concept that started slowly but is now gaining in Buying online is a relatively new concept that started slowly but is now gaining in popularity. Many potential buyers, however, are still worried about security; they will not furnish credit-card information unless they know that a site is completely safe from intruders. When they send electronic order forms, buyers don't want hackers grabbing their account numbers to do a little shopping of their own. So to show your customers that you are thinking about their welfare, you need to offer them choices. They should be able to call a toll-free number, send a check to your street address or fax you an order-form page that they printed from your site. You can also use special programs to conduct online transactions safely.

Selling by Phone, Fax or Snail Mail

The simplest way to sell online is to have customers call, fax or mail in their orders, just as they would with a paper catalog. Simply create an illustrated online catalog with product information and prices. At the bottom of each page of your site, include your telephone number, mailing address and e-mail address so that customers can contact you--either to place an order or to ask a question.

Gainer provides a guest book so that customers can sign in, type their comments and indicate whether they want to be contacted for special sales. "Most of the people who shop on the Internet are coming across the online services and they don't have much experience," says Gainer. "They want to be able to get there, find what they need and have someone respond to them if they ask a question."

Selling Electronically

A slightly more complex way to run a sales site is to have your customers send you an e-mail to place an order, as well as to ask questions and make comments. Add a Mailto command to a HyperText Markup Language (HTML) statement in each page at your site. Using HTML forms tags, or commands, you can also create order forms that your customers can fill in and send electronically to your e-mail address by using the Mailto command or by clicking on a button. Online forms usually require Common Gateway Interface (CGI) programming and a knowledge of the HTML forms tags. Using the forms tags, you define the form itself and add elements such as text-input areas, check boxes, and buttons on which a buyer can click to send the form. In addition, you must get permission from your Internet service provider (ISP), because order forms and CGI programs will use extra computer and storage resources, which may mean that you will pay more for your Internet connection.

It is important to repeatedly and thoroughly test the forms before adding them to your Web site; this ensures that the forms and programming work properly. And whenever you edit a page, test the forms again.

Janet Ruhl, owner of Technion Books (http://www.javanet.com/~technion, a publisher in Leverett, Massachusetts, says, "I use forms to collect information for a salary survey and to collect tips from consultants who visit my site. This tells me a great deal about my visitors, including where they found out about my page. Since I run a bare-bones site without CGI scripting, I use the Mailto option to let visitors e-mail the forms to me. My sales are slightly better than I would expect from targeted direct mailing (three percent or four percent), but the cost per sale is much lower."

Shopping-Cart Programs

The most expensive method for operating a secure sales site is using a shopping-cart program, which is also known as an electronic catalog system. As a customer shops, a shopping-cart program accumulates information: a unique customer identification to prevent all the current orders from overlapping, customer address information for automatic computation of shipping charges and taxes, and a record and availability of each piece of selected merchandise. When the computer signals that the order is complete, the program totals the order, takes credit-card information, verifies the credit card and writes the order to a file for later processing. This type of program provides many features, which may include automatic credit-card checks, security options such as encryption (turning the credit-card information into coded characters that cannot be read by outsiders), sophisticated searches, sales-tax and shipping calculations, and online help for visitors. Most shopping-cart programs cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to license.

The Bottom Line

"I don't think that customers care whether they are using a shopping-cart system," Gainer says. "The important thing is to make sure an order form is easy for your customer to use, and that you provide alternate ways to place an order for those who are wary about putting their credit-card numbers on the Internet. A business has to use common sense. If a site is too difficult for customers to use, if it doesn't look good and if it doesn't load quickly, which is very important, people aren't going to buy. Sellers should make their sites for people who have 14.4 Kbps modems to broaden their market to the widest audience.

"The Internet now is like TV was back in the '50s. I think that, eventually, we and a lot of the other people who stay with the Internet are going to do really well."

Selling Sources

If you want to learn more about selling online, visit these Web sites:

The Common Gateway Interface (CGI) (http://hoohoo.ncsa.uiuc.edu/cgi/ is a site that introduces newcomers to CGI--the programs that allow a form to be sent to a Web server computer for processing--and the results to be sent back to the page from which the form was sent. Here, you can download sample CGI programs from which you can create your own CGI programs.

LinkExchange (http://www.linkexchange.com/index.html is a free service that helps Web sites advertise each other. When you join, you agree to display advertising banners on your site; in return, your advertising appears at other members' sites.

Wilson Internet Services (http://www.wilsonweb.com/ contains many articles about the best ways to sell goods and services online and to market your site. Articles cover a variety of sales and marketing topics. The site also provides "Web Marketing Today," a free electronic newsletter.

PerlShop Shopping Cart Script (http://www.arpanet.com/PerlShop/perlshop.html is a free CGI shopping-cart script written in the Practical Extraction and Report Language (PERL) programming language. To use this script, you must display a PerlShop logo on the main page of your catalog. You must also provide a link to the PerlShop home page. PerlShop runs on computers using UNIX or Windows operating systems.

MiniVend (http://www.minivend.com/minivend/download.html is a shopping-cart program for UNIX computers.

The Indian River Gift Fruit Co., 3570 Cheney Hwy., Titusville, FL 32780, (407) 268-1479 http://www.giftfruit.com

InfoImage Inc., 100 W. Clarendon, #2310, Phoenix, AZ 85013, Jennifer_Hooper@infoimage.com.

Technion Books, P.O. Box 171, Leverett, MA 01054, technion@javanet.com