Deciding to sell your product or service on the Web isn't always an earthshaking event. Take the case of David Mutton, president of Driving Obsession Inc., a homebased golf training company in San Francisco. In 1996, Mutton noticed that more than 50 percent of his new clients signing up for golf lessons listed an e-mail address on their customer information forms. This detail told Mutton that a fairly large percentage of his customers are Web savvy and eventually spurred him to create a site that sells golf merchandise and gift certificates. The Web site has substantially increased his sales. "I was looking for opportunities to reach people who aren't [existing] clients," says Mutton, 41. "This has been a great way for me to generate sales that I don't think I would've gotten otherwise."
Most industry experts agree that Internet commerce has finally arrived. At last, a fair amount of computer users have reached a comfort level regarding the security of buying over the Internet. After trying it out, many have quickly been won over by the wide selection and convenience that online shopping offers. In fact, The Yankee Group Inc., a Boston-based technology research firm, estimates that business-to-consumer sales over the Internet will balloon to $10 billion by 2000.
For homebased entrepreneurs, setting up an online storefront to enhance sales--or serve as their sole means for generating business--is more viable than ever. In recent months, it's gotten easier and cheaper to build a Web site that takes orders electronically, and everyone from banks to ISPs are more knowledgeable about the process. Moreover, Internet commerce has evolved into a fairly low-budget way for homebased businesses without a distribution channel or retail location to sell their wares. For many, creating a digital storefront requires a much smaller investment than traditional retail methods.
That's not to say the Internet commerce waters aren't rough. Some Web site designers and others have led people to believe it's easy and cheap to set up an online storefront, when the reality isn't always so. In the near future, much of the growth in Internet commerce will be in the business-to-business sector (The Yankee Group estimates business-to-business sales will reach $171 billion by 2000), so consumer acceptance still has a way to go. Plus, with Internet commerce in its early stages, the art of selling online where you can't talk to people and easily build a rapport takes a lot of patience, skill--and a bit of luck.
"It's hard to develop a relationship with people on the Web because they can just disappear like smoke," says Phil Doyle, president of WebAgency Marketing & Consulting, a Santa Rosa, California, firm specializing in Internet commerce, online advertising and public relations.
For homebased businesses, the promise and problems of Internet commerce are pronounced. Setting up an online storefront is a natural move for homebased mail order companies with established methods of acquiring products, processing orders and shipping internationally. But those who aren't familiar with the intricacies of a retail business must be prepared to invest the proper amount of time and resources to make a Web store work.