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What Kind of Stores Are on the Web

Is there only one kind of Web store?

Actually, there are lots of different business models for these stores. You’ll find all of the following types of stores, and then some.

• Individual or mom-and-pop enterprises, the Web equivalent of the corner deli

• Retailers who branch out onto the Web, while continuing to do their main business at the physical stores

• Mail-order catalogs who go online to expand their business, such as L.L. Bean at http://www.llbean.com/ or Lands’ End at http: //www.landsend.com/

• Stores that have been created from scratch to sell on the Web, saving money that other companies spend on retail showrooms, paper catalogs, and, sometimes, warehousing. Some of these stores focus on one product, such as music CDs, books, or travel. Others are more like traditional department stores, with hundreds of thousands of products.

• Manufacturers who choose to sell for a very high list price, so that their dealers can look good by offering specials, discounts, and bargains. Example: Compaq Computer, at http://www.compaq.com/

• Manufacturers who deal directly with you as a consumer (without distributing through dealers or resellers), and therefore give you the wholesale price, which is often lower than anything advertised by dealers or retailers. Examples: Dell Computer, at http://www.dell.com/ and Gateway at http://www.gateway.com/

• Anyone with a huge real-time transaction database, such as airline reservation companies and stockbrokers, because these electronic systems allow you to enter a transaction and get confirmation within a few seconds.

• Online malls, which are essentially lists of dozens or hundreds of other online stores, both large and small, gathered together for strength, and sometimes sharing a common ordering system. Example: The Internet Mall at http://www.shopnow.com/ has links to 15,000 stores.

• Auction sites, which come in two flavors: 1) a company lets you bid on overstocks, leftovers, end-of-the-line, or demo products, or 2) a company that acts as a host for individuals offering items for public auction, somewhat like a classified ad section in which you have to make a competitive bid to win the right to buy the item.

• Partners with the major online services, such as America Online, CompuServe (now run by AOL, but a different service), Microsoft Network. Each service has a few partner stores in every major area that you might want to shop in. If you subscribe to AOL, you get to browse from store to store within AOL, adding items to the same shopping cart, whereas out on the Web, each store has its own shopping cart. The result: At AOL we tend to buy too much. Also, AOL itself guarantees your money back, even if the merchant balks. Your credit card company will reimburse you for all but $50 of any credit card fraud, but AOL will pay the remaining $50 if you have trouble at one of their partner stores. Many of the AOL partners also have storefronts on the Web, so even if you are not a subscriber, you can come in through the front door. The only problem with these partnership arrangements is that, to guarantee good income to each partner, the service tends to limit the number of stores in any one area, such as computers, and as a result, you really don’t get a wide range of products or prices.

What makes online stores possible?

Several technologies came together in the 1990s to make Web stores possible:

• The Web, new in the ’90s, making it possible to publish pages full of graphics with links to other pages, an electronic catalog open to the public.

• The credit card network, already in place, allowing any merchant to transmit your credit card number and the purchase amount to the credit card folks, and get their approval back within a few seconds (or quite a few seconds on a slow day), all electronically.

• A special computer for handling credit card information, called a secure server, which is just a variation on the kind of computer that has been hosting networks for many years. And the software that makes the computer secure derives from existing programs.

• Rapid delivery systems like Airborne Express, DHL, FedEx, and UPS, because these can deliver products to the stores overnight, and then, when you order a product, zip it from the store to your door in a day or two, rather than making you wait a week or two, as in the old days of snail mail; and some Web stores skip warehousing altogether, relaying your order to a manufacturer or wholesaler who packs and ships the product directly to you, using these services.

• The inventory database, already in place for most existing companies, storing and reporting information about every product, such as pictures, specs, and prices.

• Programming languages, old and new, that allow the Web site to look a product up in the inventory database and report back to you, on whatever Web page you are looking at, within a few seconds.

• Electronic mail, which the store uses to send you a confirmation of your order, and which you can use to ask questions, complain, or send your reviews of products.

Most of these technologies were already mature when the Web was born, so Web site builders do not have to guess how they work. The hard part of creating an online store involves hooking all these pieces together so that they work efficiently without too many errors.

Once the pieces are smoothly stitched together, the next problem is success: as new customers pour into the company’s site, the site’s computer may bog down, and network connections may clog up. Result: You can’t get in, or you experience delays.

At that point, the happy owners have to add more servers and more bandwidth (enlarging the network pipeline so more transactions can come through at the same time).

What are the signs that an online store is reliable?

Most online stores hope for repeat business, and work hard to persuade you to come back again.

Obviously, even the best make mistakes. But we have found that you can feel increasingly confident when a store offers a lot of the following features, most of which should be visible on the welcome page:

• A professional layout, with clearly separated areas for menus and product information

• A search box on every page

• A list of major product categories on the first page, and every page thereafter, so you can jump from one area to another without climbing back up to the home page

• Prominently placed information about how to order, shipping possibilities, and frequently asked questions; best to have these as buttons on a menu that appears on every page, second best to lump them all under a button for Customer Service or Ordering Information

• Little photographs (for fast downloading) that you can click to enlarge (but only if you really want to)

• Detailed descriptions of the products, with features and benefits, specs, requirements, samples, reviews

• Icons toward the bottom of the home page from organizations that certify the reliability of the site, such as the Better Business Bureau Online at http://www.bbbonline.org/

• Secure ordering, so you can safely provide personal and credit card information to the store’s electronic systems (not a salesclerk or other human being) without worrying that some hacker can pick it up

• Awards by magazines or sites that review Web sites

• A prominently placed, very visible 800 number for questions, not just purchases

• A very visible way to email their customer support team, such as a Contact Us button on every page

• A snail mail address, possibly in a section called About Us, so you can write them, or call the president

• A fairly detailed history of the store in a section called something like About Us, with acknowledgment of key partnerships (like they use Yahoo to take credit cards) or ownership, so you have some idea who you are dealing with

When the store owners incorporate these features in the site, you get a sense of their openness and generosity.

And, on the other hand, people who withhold information, force you to jump around to look stuff up, hide from contact, and present an ugly, hard-to-read page, can hardly be called welcoming or businesslike.

What makes an online store easy to use?

Goodwill.

The attitude that the Web team takes toward you shows up in their interface: the buttons, menus, forms, and page layouts you use to get around, look up products, and order them.

Here are ten signs that the team cares about your experience on their site:

1. There is a main menu on every page, at the top or on the side, offering links to every major department, including some form of help, and the order form, so you can go anywhere from anywhere, without leaning on the Back button.

2. On every page you can get advice and information, whether it is called Customer Service, Frequently Asked Questions, Help, or Order Information.

3. No matter where you are, you can look at the contents of your shopping cart to see what you have tentatively ordered so far.

4. Each page has some titles telling you where you are: for instance, what department you are in, and, within that, what category of products you are looking at, and finally what the name of this particular product is, so you know where you are in the overall structure of the site.

5. You can always see how to buy a product (for instance, there is a giant red Buy button next to the product description).

6. You can get extra information about a product, if you want.

7. Whenever you click a link, you know where it will take you.

8. You can read the text. (The staff has not put up white or blue text on a black background, to be cool.)

9. Images start as thumbnails, and you have the option to make them larger or not, so you do not get stuck with endless download times if you are on a slow connection.

10. The searches result in a manageable set of hits: not too many, and not too few.

These common courtesies help you move around the site with confidence, avoiding dead ends, wrong turns, detours, and pitfalls.