More important than the numbers, however, is the way the Internet and Web are used. They began as communication and information exchanges for government research between major universities. The Web quickly became an icon for a wired worldwide sub-culture, then a phenomena. Once forward-thinking businesses saw the potential of the Web's appeal and accessibility the future of marketing and customer service was changed forever.
The window coverings industry is rapidly learning that the Internet has changed the way business is conducted. No longer a fad, communicating, marketing and selling via the Web has become a fundamental business tool as important as customer referrals and as necessary as product and fabric samples.
Must retailers have a Web presence to succeed in the next millennium? The resounding answer is, Yes!
Although slow at first, doing business via the Internet-better known today as e-commerce-has taken off in leaps and bounds. Initial fears over security and privacy have been quickly laid to rest as businesses and software developers realize they have everything to gain or lose depending on their success at maintaining secure sites that accept major credit cards for purchases.
The public has been just as quick to respond. A national poll of 1,000 Americans found 13 percent indicated they have no fears about electronic commerce. "While consumers may have concerns about shopping on-line, these concerns have not affected their shopping habits," said Ronald Burr, CEO of NetZero, a free Internet service provider. The NetZero poll, conducted by Market Facts, Inc., was taken from a sample of the general population and was not limited to Internet users. Among Internet regulars, purchasing on-line has become a multi-billion-dollar enterprise.
By many accounts, 1998 was the year e-commerce went mainstream. An Internet shopping study by the accounting and consulting firm Ernst & Young, found the number of households that have purchased on the Internet increased from seven percent to 10 percent between 1997 and 1998. During that time, households with personal computers reached 43 percent and retailers selling on-line rose to 39 percent.
NetServe, Inc., a small business Web site and shopping cart development company, cites surveys by Boston Consulting Group and Shop.org reporting 1998 on-line Christmas season sales up 230 percent over the year before for an annual sales growth of 200 percent. In 1998 on-line sales reached $13 billion. Looking ahead to 2003, growth is forecast to jump to $108 billion, according to Forester Research, Inc.
What that means to the window coverings and interior decorating industry is a new revenue stream virtually unrestricted by distance and time. In 1996, D&WC featured a cover story on Decorating Dimensions Inc., a Fort Collins, CO, window, wall and floor coverings retailer that had just gone on-line with the store's Web page (www.decdim.com) earlier that year. At the time, owner Clair Hoover said he believed retailers would learn they need both a physical location and an on-line presence to do business in the future.
In the intervening years Hoovers' assessment has been borne out in Decorating Dimensions' growth and success while it continues to market itself and its products on-line. "Business is good and the Internet has helped us," says Hoover. "The situation is such that [e-commerce] is running about 10 percent of business. That's great!"
What shoppers aren't buying over the Internet, they're researching in preparation of buying. NetSmart Research, specializing in emerging trends and technologies, recently surveyed 1,000 Americans over the age of 21 who accessed the Internet from home at least one hour a week. It found that 62 percent of those surveyed said information they found on-line directly influenced their retail purchases, and half of those surveyed turned to the Internet for information first when they planned a major purchase or investment.
Of importance to window treatment retailers is that NetSmart found 49 percent of shoppers go on-line without a brand name in mind. In its survey, 93 percent said they go to the Web to look for specific information to help them decide which brand to buy, while 64 percent said they made a high-ticket retail purchase based on on-line information.
The importance of having a Web presence has not been overlooked by major window coverings suppliers and manufacturers, and the need to provide specific product information to consumers is echoed by John Kay, vice president, Hunter Douglas Window Fashions (www.hunterdouglas.com). "Already many potential consumers of Hunter Douglas window covering products are logging onto the Internet to research renovation and decorating projects. Every day more consumers are following this course, and it is imperative that we are there to fulfill their needs," Kay says.
Perhaps the first and most important aspect of going on-line is to find and contact potential customers. That was a leading reason why Steve Walton, Shades Of The Future, Inc., Beaverton, OR, (www.shadesofthefuture.com) launched a company Web site this year after 20 years as a window treatment retailer. "Last April I attended a local Chamber of Commerce technology seminar and heard people talk about the current Web marketplace and their personal experiences. After sifting through all the input and considering my local service area, I decided the time was right for my company to move ahead with a Web site," Walton says. "My primary goal is just to meet prospective local clients. Most of my customers are on the Internet, and if that's where they shop and do research, that's where I want to be present," he adds.
But as Hunter Douglas' Kay says, the Web also is important in communicating between manufacturers and other distribution channels. "The site also provides information to retail window covering dealers as well as information to architects and contractors on the full line of Hunter Douglas products," Kay says.
Creating a Web site and establishing e-mail is only the very first step in doing business over the Internet. "I waited until the Web site creation software matured to the point where an amateur like myself could create a reasonably good-looking site," says Walton. "And, just as important, I feel more control if I maintain the site myself and am not dependent on anyone else for updates. The site is being changed constantly and that will continue."
Fresh content and in-house control of the Web site is an important part of Decorating Dimension's on-line success. Clair Hoover's son Matt originally created the company's site, and he continues expanding it and adding new collections. Over the course of a few weeks, viewers returning to the site will likely find something new. "It's like filling your store bins or displays," Hoover says. "Part of your Internet presence is to show more of the product you have in stock because that's where the money is."
Are these efforts paying off? "Yes," says Hunter Douglas' Kay. "We are now into our second-generation Web site, and we are seeing continuous increases in the number of visitors to our site. An increasing number of visitors are requesting the location of a local dealer indicating that they are approaching a buying decision."
At Decorating Dimensions, Hoover also expects e-commerce to increase. "They're making it easier for people to get on the Internet, that means more people get on, more people explore, more people are going to buy," he says.
Once a business gets beyond developing a Web site, it often re-learns the value of spending time on good, old-fashioned customer service. Being globally accessible 24 hours a day requires more attention to customer inquiries rather than less. Jupiter Communications recently found that 42 percent of top-ranked Web sites took longer than five days to answer customer inquiries, never replied or didn't even take e-mail.
With billions of dollars in sales at stake, however, retailers can be sure plenty of help is available. On-line marketing and fulfillment services are becoming readily available. IBSI, a Chantilly, VA, company that operates telephone call centers for other businesses, now offers Live Assistance, an on-line customer service program. The service provides live, on-line "operators" who are trained to enter on-line chats with customers or even to download, or "push," Web pages directly to consumers on demand.
Other fulfillment companies are springing up specializing in helping businesses support their e-commerce Web sites with ordering, processing and even shipping. Retailers busy with physical locations can rely on these services so they can maintain on-line the top-notch customer service their customers have come to expect in the store.
Specifically for the window coverings industry a consumer-oriented Web site has been launched to help retailers reach new customers through on-line marketing. Buywindowcoverings.com (www.buywindowcoverings.com) is a nationally advertised Web site that helps consumers locate retailers near where they live who carry the products and services they are interested in. It offers an easily accessible, fully searchable database of retailers, which visitors can pinpoint by area (local ZIP code), company name, brand or product.
Of course some on-line customers, like some walk-in customers, don't know what they are looking for when they first go on-line. To help them, Buywindowcoverings.com provides a virtual showroom displaying samples of window treatment designs and products in more than 30 different categories illustrated in four-color product or room-setting photographs.
Buywindowcoverings.com is especially helpful at providing an inexpensive and maintenance-free Web presence for retailers who do not have Web sites of their own. For those with Web sites, attracting customers often can be hit-or-miss. As the go-to site for consumers preparing to make a purchase, Buywindowcoverings.com draws potential customers as readily as customer referrals. For an additional listing charge, the site even can link Web shoppers directly to a retailer's home page.
The bottom line for retailers marketing on the Web is customer convenience. More and more, customer convenience is being defined as the ability to search for, research and purchase products on-line in the comfort of their homes at the times of day best suited for them. The Internet and Web provides that level of service-and a whole new meaning to shop-at-home-like no other advertising or marketing medium ever could. "Today, the consumer doesn't go to the phone. It's easier to go to the computer and look things up," says Clair Hoover. "We do it all the time."