Once MasterCard and VISA secure consumer on-line credit card transactions (due early this year), commerce on the Net will soar, and impact nearly every type of business. A well-planned and carefully designed Web site boosts your image, reinforces your credibility and allows you to network with anyone -- worldwide. Eventually, it can bring increased sales for your window coverings business.
"Look at your Web site as a new business venture, not just another marketing channel," says Keith Thirgood, co-owner of Capstone Communications in Markham, Ontario, Canada. "You're participating in the infrastructure that's preparing consumers who eventually will make many of their purchases on the Net."
But don't market on the Internet with the hopes of making lots of money, warns Jay Steinfeld, owner of Laura's Draperies, Bedspreads & More, in Houston, TX. "The latest catch-phrase these days is 'If you build it, they will come.' That's just not true. They won't come unless you give them a good reason to, " he says.
Part of your total marketing strategy, your Web site presents your business to today's 40 million Internet users worldwide. For draperies and window coverings retailers who rely mostly on local business, a properly maintained Web site showcases your products and services to prospects -- at their convenience.
Dian Garbarini, owner of Designs by Dian in Huntington Beach, CA, puts it this way: "Any more, it's becoming the norm to have a Web site. If you're not on the Net, you simply don't exist. And though it may feel overwhelming at first, once you have a Web site, you'll see the advantages immediately."
Image boosting. A well-designed and maintained Web site advances a positive image of your company. Just being on the Net conveys a cutting-edge impression of your business.
Garbarini started her Web site about a year ago to present her portfolio, advertise her business and serve as liaison in the industry. "I wanted to be recognized as someone on top of the new technology, keeping up with the latest drapery treatment and products," she says.
It's also why Steinfeld turned to the Net. "This industry attracts a lot of hobbyists. Our Web site sends the message that we're committed, that we're always looking to improve the way we do business," he says.
Networking. Your Web site opens up a whole new world of communication possibilities between your business and others. With e-mail on the Internet, you have instantaneous interaction with anyone in the world, individually or en mass.
Rory McNeil, president of TechStyles Window Coverings in Ventura, CA, started his company's Web site in December 1995 so he could search out others in the industry. A year before, he started an on-line, international mailing list, called WindowPro, that has grown from 20 to 600 names. Recently, Garbarini started DraperyPro, a similar group for softgoods.
Twice a week, McNeil archives the 30-some e-mail messages he receives, funnels them into one document, editorializes it with a dash of humor, then simultaneously sends it to everyone on the list. He also regularly scans the Net for other Web sites in the window coverings industry and links these to his own site for anyone to peruse.
"In our industry, we've led the consciousness of the Net more than anyone else," says McNeil. "But we don't use it to market; we just want to inform. Eventually, WindowPro may evolve into a digital newsletter, without paid advertisements, changing the way people in the industry receive their information."
Sales. "If you can sell your products or services by catalog or direct mail, you can do so through your Web site," says Thirgood. However, if you rely mostly on local business, you'll probably make your sales indirectly, through networking with others on-line.
"Through my interactions with others in the industry, I've learned how to run my business better, and as a result, have increased sales," says Garbarini. "Eventually I may sell from my site, but right now it's not my goal."
Your Web site can portray your products so consumers can shop your "virtual store" any time. However, in the window coverings industry products need to be seen and touched.
"In this industry, a Web site as a sales vehicle is most useful when consumers need to narrow down their preliminary purchasing decisions, or to obtain prices," says Edward Tromczynski, president of The PlanSoft Partnership, a Cleveland, OH-based communications firm. "Beyond that, they've got to look, touch, compare and contrast. It's difficult to do that by computer."
Planning Your Site
Before you dive in and design your Web site, ask yourself:
Who do you want to reach? Do you want to offer detailed product information to consumers? Do you want to develop brand-name or company awareness? Do you want to make on-line sales? Do you want to network with others in the industry, or interact with prospects? Do you want to motivate people to visit your business in person? What hardware, software and staffing do you need to design and maintain your site? What do your competitors' Web sites look like? What do the best sites, competitors or not, look like?
Your answers will help determine the most appropriate approach to designing your Web site including size, complexity and cost.
Hire Out or Do It Yourself?
If you have strong computer graphic and marketing skills, and know hardware and software, save yourself the expense and design your own Web site. Garbarini admits that if her husband didn't helped her for free, she probably wouldn't have a site.
"Then again, what's your time worth?" Thirgood asks. "Are you better off investing that time doing traditional marketing and sales, and running a business, or developing a Web site that may not pay off for a few years?"
Says Glenn Parfitt, vice president of sales and marketing at Vicnet Communications, a managed Internet Service Provider (ISP) based in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, "There are lots of bad sites on the Net. Don't let yours to be one of them. If you don't have the skills, you're likely to create something that you think looks good, but isn't."
Net-savvy people can tell. "If your Web site doesn't impress them right off, they're likely to move on to the next one," says Steinfeld. He served as his Web site's layout artist, designing the format, structure and navigational elements. Then he hired writers, graphic artists and production and technical people. His team maintains the site every other month.
Complement Existing Marketing
Because having a Web site isn't a one-time expense, set aside a budget line-item for it so you're financially prepared. "Your Web site needs to be part of your entire marketing plan, just as brochures and other promotional activities are," says Tromczynski.
You can have the flashiest Web site on the Internet, but if your traditional marketing materials aren't topnotch and doing their job, you won't get the most out of it. Together, both give you results.
Brochures, advertising and direct mail target a specific, local geographic or demographic market. "Your Web site attracts people who search you out because they're definitely interested in what you have to offer," says Thirgood. "At the same time, they come from a broad geographic market, which may or may not be conducive to your business."
To attract local customers, make sure your Web site address (called a URL for Universal Resource Locator) is included on your stationery, business cards, brochures, direct mail, advertising and other promotional materials. Says Garbarini, "Whenever I include my Web site address with newspaper advertising, more people respond to the site."
Editor's Note: In next month's article, Sykes discusses tips for designing a successful Web site and some of the benefits of networking alliances.
Claire Sykes is a free-lance writer living in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Her articles appear in dozens of trade and consumer magazine throughout the United States and Canada.