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Starting an Online Business in a Down Economy As shoppers flock to their computers instead of driving to the mall, entrepreneurs with e-businesses can make a hefty sum.

By Melissa Campanelli

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

We all know we're in less-than-stellar economic times. While there's no official "recession," every person you know is probably watching his daily spending and cutting back wherever possible.

Since money is tight, is it really a good time to start an online business? You bet.

To begin with, internet startups have low overhead and startup costs--as low as $3,000, thanks in part to inexpensive, yet robust e-commerce software and services on the market. What's more, the business can be set up in a home office and attended to at nights and on weekends, allowing new entrepreneurs to keep their day jobs. In addition, many budding entrepreneurs can set up their online businesses in less than one week.

Another reason an internet startup could be lucrative even in a down economy is that online shopping is growing. In the first quarter of 2008, revenues generated by online-based businesses (and the online aspects of traditional retail businesses) were $32.4 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That tally is up 13.4 percent from results for the third quarter of 2007.

In general, e-commerce is the bright spot in the retail world today.

"Online retail continues to grow at a pretty nice clip," says Jeffrey Grau, retail e-commerce senior analyst with eMarketer. "If you look at total retail sales, annual growth is in the low single digits. However, the online channel has been growing in recent years in the low to mid-20 percentile."

While Grau warns that the economic downturn is slowing e-commerce sales, online sales are still growing at triple the rate of store sales.

"It's still a very desirable marketplace," he says.

And more and more online shoppers are turning to the web instead of paying for gas to go to the mall.

A new poll conducted by RetailMeNot.com, an online coupon website, found that nearly nine out of 10 American consumers have changed their shopping habits as a result of high gas prices.

The poll found that out of more than 1,000 respondents who voted multiple times:

  • 45 percent said they plan shopping trips together to use less gas
  • 42 percent said they shop less
  • 22 percent said they do as much shopping as possible online
  • 11 percent said there was no impact

Whether or not the economy is bad, there are some best practices to keep in mind when opening an online business. Here are a few of Grau's tips:

  1. Have a niche or focus on a specialty category. Since you're essentially competing with box retailers like Wal-Mart or Target when you enter the online retail space, "be sure [you're selling] something niche-oriented, such as fashionable maternity wear or urban street wear," Grau says. "Or focus on a specific category, like shoes, but that's all you do. But offer great custom service, such as making it easy to return shoes."
  2. Offer an innovative marketing technology. A good example of this is Diapers.com, a small web retailer.

    "[The company is] very successful in part because it has an innovative referral program where if a Diapers.com customer refers somebody else to the company, that customer gets a discount. That is one way it has built up its customer base."

    Grau also says Diapers.com uses innovative packaging that enables it to cut down on shipping costs. Finally, the company is innovative in its focus on convenience; it makes it easy for young parents to have diapers delivered to their door without having to make a midnight run to the store because they are out of diapers.
  3. Keep pricing in mind. Even if you are selling a niche product, always keep pricing a priority.

"You are never going to compete with big box retailers on pricing, but perhaps there is a promotion or value-added program you can offer that helps people deflect that or takes their minds off of pricing."

A unique product, an innovative marketing technology and a promotion to help customers deflect prices are important business strategies during a recession because people have less discretionary money to spend.

"[Entrepreneurs should] focus on strategies that keep their customers coming back," Grau says.

Melissa Campanelli is a leading expert in small business e-commerce and author of the books Design and Launch an Online Boutique in a Week, Open an Online Business in 10 Days and Start Your Own e-Business.

Melissa Campanelli is a technology writer in Brooklyn, New York, who has covered technology for Mobile Computing & Communications and Sales & Marketing Management magazines. You can reach her at mcampanelli@earthlink.net.

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