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Electronic Commerce: How to sell in cyberspace

Forget the jargon, the decision to establish a Web presence should be a business decision like any other, advises Paul Smith
We've all heard the figures: there's $2.6bn of business being conducted on the Internet, with $220bn due by 2001.

That is a mightily attractive market, one that often forces people, almost reluctantly, to ask the following question: should our company be doing business on the Internet?

It is a question that comes grudgingly to the lips of many, for whom the Internet is a bewilderingly foreign land, whose denizens speak a most strange tongue. It is a land that they had forlornly hoped not to have to visit, even as they watch its influence lap at their own shores.

But, strip aside the jargon and the technologies, and making the decision to do business online need not be daunting. All you need to do is answer a few standard business questions, within the framework of the new medium, and you will know whether it is right for you.

Let us have a look at some of the features specific to the Internet that will affect the decision about whether to trade on it, and then see how to go actually doing it.

What sells and what doesn't: The first step in considering online trading is to understand the Internet's features as a market: which products sell well, who is on the Web, and how will you get to them?

Fundamental to this is recognition of the single most important aspect of the Web, what makes it different from all other markets: it is a medium of "global narrowcasting". However narrowly defined your audience, you can reach the whole planet in one move. The people who visit your online shop will be pre-selected as interested in your wares. It is unlike a print or broadcast advert, which will pass before the eyes of many whose common interest is only the medium they see it on rather than your message. And, also unlike that medium, it is global in a way that even CNN cannot boast.

Not everyone is on the Internet and you will have to determine if your product is aimed at those who currently are. This is becoming less of an issue as the numbers "wired in" continue to rocket. But selling, say, walking frames is tougher to match to the current Web user's profile than, say, modems.

There are some businesses that do particularly well: books and CDs are two Web sales success stories, because they attract the current Web user, and they sell known commodities which can be bought without the purchaser seeing them first.

There are many other businesses that do well online, including big-ticket items such as holidays, cars and computers. But any business can make money online if targeted properly.

What you need to sell online: There are, in fact, only a few things you need to get a Web presence, and having a computer connected to the Web is not one of them.

The first is someone to develop your site. This is probably the trickiest part of the operation, as anyone who can even spell HTML, it seems, claims to be able to design a Web site. "I'm a Web developer" is the Nineties equivalent of "Just resting". Journals such as Internet Magazine are a good source of adverts for developers, but the best place to find them is at the foot of any Web page you admire.

Once you have found a developer, you will need to decide with them on the complexity of your site. It is a simple, and inexpensive, matter to put up a few pages announcing to the world your existence and that of your products.You can invite the world to phone you or send you e-mail for further information or for purchasing inquiries. Your developer can also arrange a domain name, such as yourcompany.com, e-mail addresses of the form you@yourcompany. com, and a hosting service to store and present your Web pages when someone accesses www.yourcompany.com.

Money matters and security: More sophisticated sites allow you to purchase goods online. Here a new set of issues arise. First, online trading involves a number of technologies between you and a sale. But there are also many services available to help you effect them.

There is online credit-card validation: a purchaser types in their credit card number, presses a button and the Web site will validate their card before confirming the order.

In fact, your business need not even be able to handle credit cards to benefit from this facility. There are companies, such as DataCash, that can handle all validations for a small percentage of the transaction, a sort of virtual agent.

If purchasers typically buy a number of items at a time, you might want a shopping basket facility. This involves a certain amount of programming, which can get expensive, but hosting services often provide this for you - for a fee.

The bottom line: Whether to do business on the Net is still an issue, but no more so than whether to go retail or mail-order. The questions are the same, but some of the factors are different.

But these factors are less significant than some expect: if you are thinking about doing a mailshot, it could be cheaper and more profitable to set up a Web site. Maybe now is the time to think about it - before all your competitors do.