When 35-year-old outdoorsman Dave Secunda was preparing to start PlanetOutdoors.com, an adventure sports gear e-tailer, he knew that the difference between joining the Web retail party and being left alone in the great outdoors would largely be determined by the company's online product catalog. "The whole concept behind PlanetOutdoors.com was the re-creation of a specialty outdoors store online," explains Secunda.
To put it another way, Secunda counted on the online presentation of his Boulder, Colorado, company's goods to impart a strong customer focus, a deep understanding of outdoor sports and a rich knowledge of the products customers would need. Secunda's catalog features descriptions written by experts in the applicable sports, pictures taken by a fashion photographer, and a multistranded structure that lets visitors find products by brand, sport or product type.
Focusing attention on your online catalog is a smart idea, say experts. "Shoppers on the Net are getting very Web savvy," says Melanie Shannon, co-founder and chief marketing officer of HipHip Software, the major Miami-based creator of MerchandiZer e-commerce solutions. "When an online shopper gets to a site and sees it's unprofessional, they leave almost immediately."
A professional catalog offers solid product descriptions, clear images, smooth navigation and pages that load quickly. How you balance these concerns depends on your business, according to Dan Schmiedeler, multimedia developer at Thought Interactive Inc., an Austin, Texas, Web solutions developer. "If you're, say, an art museum," Schmiedeler explains, "you'll want to focus on the quality of your images, whereas if you're selling radio parts, images aren't that important."
Another consideration is how many products are in your catalog. Larger catalogs often require more expensive software and affect the emphasis you place on navigation-easy navigation is more important in a catalog with thousands of items than in one with a few dozen. Text is also key. "Good, full descriptions should be available for everything you've got," says Schmiedeler. Offer brief descriptions of the products with links to further information, and do likewise with photos. Display groups of products with small thumbnail images; make larger, more detailed images available by clicking on a link. If you're selling a product that people tend to want to feel before buying, such as apparel, present detailed close-ups.
Pay special attention to the organization of your catalog. Online catalogs should allow users to surf quickly to whatever they're interested in. "One click to get to something-two clicks tops," says Shannon. Arrange listings hierarchically, with products grouped in well-thought-out categories. Schmiedeler also strongly advises making your catalog completely searchable.
You can develop your site yourself, using inexpensive e-commerce suite software, or hire someone at up to $100,000 to do it for you. Most start-ups go the do-it-yourself route and later hire someone to refine the catalog design. If you do it on your own, budget several hours a day for a month or so. Cut time and costs by taking digital pictures of products and writing descriptions before bringing in outside help.
Whether outsourcing design or doing it yourself, be creative. Secunda makes his catalog interactive by soliciting product reviews from customers that other shoppers can read while making purchasing decisions. Some companies use product configuration software so shoppers can create their own products by mixing and matching such things as computer components. Many catalogs also present visitors with custom pages, based on their past shopping habits.
Whatever you do, don't just create an online version of a paper catalog. "If all you do is reproduce a paper catalog," says Secunda, "you'll be missing all the features that make people want to shop [on your site]."
Mark Henricks, author of Business Plans Made Easy (Entrepreneur Media Inc., $19.95, www.entrepreneur.com) and Mastering Home Networking (Sybex Inc., $29.99, www.sybex.com), writes on business and technology issues.