On February 28th – 2006, Franz Maruna led a discussion for the Portland Development Commission on eCommerce. Franz Maruna is CEO of Concrete CMS, a local web application developer. The PDC is launching a new eCommerce program to encourage web industry growth in Portland Oregon.

These ten rules were discussed as good starting points and lessons learned for running successful retail operations on the internet.


10) Have a measurable goal; don't build more or less than you need to.

Plenty of people make plenty of money on eBay. Plenty of entrepreneurs have spent way too much on a site that did nothing they really needed. Set some high level goals that anyone can understand for your project. How much product will you sell? Are you targeting existing or new customers? Think everything through and determine what you really need to make this venture work. Your banker and your web developer will both thank you.

Smaller business owners often have more time than money – and the internet is a great place for those passionate individuals to succeed. Using the existing tools like Yahoo Stores, eBay, or even your local web kid and a customized open source application to get /some/ web presence up, is a great way to start. Much of what we do is for brand-centric complicated community building sites with integrated purchasing systems. Even at this big business level, our experience has always been that much of the general internet audience is extremely forgiving of design issues or bugs, as long as you're focused on delivering fantastic content and functionality.

Set your eyes on the prize, and get there quickly. You'll probably want to revise later anyway.

9) Separate inventory management from online sales to save big bucks and build lasting relationships with customers.

This is one of the most obvious ways to reduce your cost in development, while delivering the same or better customer experience. A new customer who orders a product you're out of stock on may be a refund or an alternative offer – but regardless they're an interested contact, and willing customer in the future.

8) Your customers can't touch your products, use large imagery to let them at least see them.

Make your product the star of your site. Every company has some great marketing verbiage that someone thought up late one night. Every company has some packaging materials that someone put a lot of work into. They mean a lot to the company, they're important – but not to your customer.

You need to critique the site experience the same way you would a new retail location. Can people get intimate with the products – and can sales staff be aware of all potential customers.

Practically, we think product images should be 300×300 pixels or more on a detail page. We think zooming is great, but 3d rotations are rarely worth their cost. If you have something in multiple colors, show the big picture in all of them – use the swatches as thumbnail navigation, not the only example of that color.


7) Have an extremely forgiving return policy, and treat emails with the same priority of response as you would a walk in or phone customer.

All the large clothing retailers like Gap or L.L. Bean will gladly accept your returns via mail for store credit or sometimes even a refund to your card. They strive to make this a painless process without intimidation – as they know they're maintaining ongoing relationships with their customers. Any immediate expense of including return shipping envelopes and re-stocking, is far out weighed in the big picture.

Often as part of this process – you will be engaging your customers via email. Treat emails with as much regard as you would a walk in customer or direct call. What you say in an email is documented forever, and they're often sent and received quite quickly by people who may not be in your time zone. Fast and friendly emails can build relationships with customers that have a sense of geniality which might have taken years to develop in flesh and blood.

6) Smart shopping carts.

Build your online store in a way where visitors can come and go from your site without losing their shopping cart contents. Better yet, do that AND let them save multiple carts for later use. Let them share carts for bridal/baby registries, and use their shopping carts as a new way to cross sell your products. The most compelling content on Amazon isn't the choices their artificial intelligence tries to guess for you, but rather the "customers who bought this, also bought…" items.

Functionally, you should be able to get to the product detail from the cart, easily change quantities, compute shipping, and check out without being required to register or remember a password.

5) Make a site where "everybody knows your name."

Don't let them get away with out politely trying to include them. Accounts can be made that don't require logins or store sensitive information like credit cards until the visitor wants it. You can build web applications which ask for more information about an individual over multiple visits. The idea is to build a detailed user database – without forcing them to enter it all at once in a huge form.

4) Use a simple and intuitive interface.

Keep browser back button working. Make more interfaces show all or as many thumbnails as technically possible. Avoid Popups, possibly excepting the cart. Avoid Clutter. Avoid alphabetical interfaces. Don't use real world metaphors unless they make sense. Don't put your catalog online as a PDF and go home early. This really is a top ten list of its own so in general – improve the interface deliberately, redesign it at your own peril.

3) Don't make architectural decisions on ego.

When you're working with an individual or firm to build your site – it can be a difficult journey from the high level vision to the eventual reality of your final web presence.

Find a non-biased 3rd party that can tell both you and the web shop what makes sense, and what doesn't, as things start to come together.

2) Think of your web presence as a unique store, and reward your customers for visiting the site.

The internet is a great place to test a new product, cost to market is going to be less and customer response will be vocal and immediate. You can also easily move inventory that might no longer work well at a retail location. One pair of size 12 shoes is negative cash flow at the end of the month in a retail store with limited floor space, but it might be in high demand on eBay – an international market.

Have an online newsletter and encourage people to sign up. Offer specials every 6 weeks or so via email, people always like a deal. Think creatively about what your online store can do that your brick and mortar stores can not.

1) Engage your customers in an open communication.

The most important thing to success online is allowing your audience to help you build the site. Provide tools to let customers submit product reviews and easily send feedback. Integrate support forums and discussion areas into the product store so they can be found and used. People will always talk; you might as well be part of the conversation by providing the tools to have them discuss your products online.

Don't think of your online store as simply another revenue generator, think of it as a great new way to develop lasting relationships with your customers.