Dot.common Sense

A simple lesson learned is another penny earned when it comes to dotcom survival.
Magazine Contributor
5 min read

This story appears in the May 2002 issue of Entrepreneurs Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

What makes a B2C e-commerce Web site successful? How do some pure-play dotcoms continue to thrive, even in today's difficult business climate?

To get answers to these questions, we scoured the Net for ordering processes, customer service policies, Web site design, product selection, availability-even return policies and originality. The goal? To find out what leads to success on the Net.

Despite depressing news headlines, there are still plenty of successful dotcoms out there. And despite the many differences in execution, most have at least two things in common: a close relationship with their customers and a serious approach to privacy. Users expect you to prominently display an easy-to-understand privacy policy promising never to disclose customer information without permission.

So without further ado, here are three methods companies have used to help them reach your shared goal-to get customers to actually buy something:

Offer the Best Deal: The name says it all. It's hard not to buy something off's Web site.

For starters, this Aliso Viejo, California, online retailer of computer hardware, software and electronics offers its 5 million customers nearly 1 million products at unbeatable prices. What's more, if you happen to find a product for less on the Internet within 24 hours of purchasing it at, the company refunds the difference.

Last year, posted sales of $390 million, and it's on track to pass the $500 million mark this year. The company's user base has been growing rapidly, by about 500,000 per quarter over the past 12 months.

What's the secret? Is it the site's navigation ease, customer service or prompt delivery? They help, but excels in taking away a consumer's incentive to shop around. "We tell customers it's not only convenient to buy on our site; they can save money, too," says Scott Blum, 38, who founded the company in 1997. "That way, customers know they're getting the best deal when they buy from"

Know Your Stuff: For those seeking a one-stop shop for porcini mushrooms, liqueur cakes, gourmet coffee and 340 varieties of cheese, www. is the URL to click.

Launched in 1997 from Yorktown Heights, New York, was one of the first sites geared to provide hard-to-find, imported food products directly to gourmands everywhere.

But 32-year-old CEO and founder Spencer C. Chesman didn't build this multimillion-dollar company on cheese alone. IGourmet is more than a place to buy gourmet food-it's a gourmet food authority. While shopping, customers are treated to large product pictures and descriptive information about each item for sale. The site even offers gourmet cheese experts to take phone calls and e-mails. One fun feature is the gift finder-when customers select a price range, a selection of gift ideas automatically appears on the screen.

When customers place an order on Wednesday, they will receive it by the end of the same week, but that's not good enough for the food enthusiasts at iGourmet. They know that some of their best products are perishable, so the company created a plastic foam-lined shipping chest chilled by refrigerant gel packs to keep those perishables cool for up to 48 hours while in transit. Couple that kind of expertise with a 100 percent guaranteed return policy in which products deemed unsatisfactory by customers will be replaced or refunded upon request within five business days of receiving the order, and you can understand why 75 percent of iGourmet's shoppers return to the site to purchase again, and sales have increased 50 percent every year.

Another tip we picked up from our study of iGourmet: Not only should customers be able to make any purchase online-they should have the option of calling in an order via a toll-free number displayed prominently on the home page. According to Jaclyn Easton, a business technology futurist and author of (McGraw-Hill), "Putting a toll-free number on the home page makes good business sense."

Be More Than a Store: A full menu of outdoor gear culled from more than 300 of the world's top clothing and gear manufacturers . . . detailed product information and customer-generated product reviews . . . product-comparison and sizing charts, a powerful search engine, and savvy, 360-degree views of products that rotate and zoom in and out on specific features . . .

Sounds like a killer Web site, right? Well, Kirkland, Washington, online retailer thought it could offer even more. Unlike other outdoor enthusiast retail sites, doubles as an outdoor lifestyle destination Web site that brings together resources for purchasing equipment, live advice online, information and pictorials, relevant links and travel services. The site even offers suggestions about where visitors can go to get their equipment repaired.

And customers have responded quite favorably to the tactic. Founded in 1999 by Mike Morford, 32; Blaine Donnelson, 35; and Shannon Stowell, 33; the company currently logs sales in the multimillions and rapidly grew 100 percent last year. In 2001, the number of visitors to the site increased by 50 percent, and the Web site logged at least 600,000 unique visitors a month.

"Successful sites are always striving to better serve the customer," says Thomas P. Berger, author of The Essential Guide to Web Strategy for Entrepreneurs (Prentice Hall). "It is the most critical strategic element in all businesses. The business that does it best wins in its space."

We couldn't agree more.

Melissa Campanelli is a marketing and technology writer in Brooklyn, New York.

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