Guest column: 10 surefire ways to bomb in e-commerce

Ignore what already exists.

Most experts agree that an e-commerce site is doomed to failure if no one carefully considers how it fits in with the existing business model. Know how e-commerce will affect your overall business, including sales channels, marketing, order fulfillment, inventory and accounting procedures. Without this information, you run the risk of developing a technically flawless site with little business relevance.

Think psychedelic design.

Despite the proliferation of advice, even from staidly grey outfits such as the Wall Street Journal, many sites look like drug-induced marvels of flashing lights and confusion. Providing too much information on the opening page deters users. Fewer options and a simple design are key.

Build it to run slowly.

Sites run slowly as a side effect of cluttered designs and flashy stuff. They also creep along if they're overburdened by too much unpredicted traffic. Take a hint from Zona Research, a market research company in Redwood City, California. In a recent study called "Shop until you drop", Zona found that customers are less likely to use a site if it takes more than eight seconds to load.

Don't bother offering a search function.

Many companies require users to go through a confounding number of twists and turns to find a product on the companies' Web sites. In the above-mentioned Zona study, two-thirds of the survey participants indicated a marked degree of difficulty in finding products on e-commerce sites.

Refer back to Item 2: There is no formula for simple and intuitive design. However, everyone knows what the Search button means. The worst sin in building an e-commerce site is not providing a solid search capability.

Confuse them at the point of purchase.

Once customers find the perfect product, they're often tripped up by the buying routine.

Take the case of a travel site that was successful in providing information, but failed to get customers to work through the confusing 12-click process it took to book reservations.

"By applying cognitive design principles to the purchase process, we got it down to three clicks. The result was a 15 per cent increase in the number of visitors who booked reservations through the site," says Dick Loveland, a principal at Chicago-based consultancy Neoglyphics Media.

Don't acknowledge receipt of an order.

This may not kill your site, but it will annoy customers. When a project depends on fulfillment of a product order, as it probably will with any business-to-business transaction, the site must be accountable. Always confirm order receipt.

Don't bother with back-end systems.

"Most e-commerce sites fail because their back-end accounting and inventory systems are not integrated with ordering," says David Gibson, vice president of iXL, an Internet company in Boston.

Companies not attempting integration must implement supplemental back-end processes, which usually require that data be re-entered into different systems. Volume sales quickly overwhelm these manual processes and cause myriad mistakes.

Manheim Auctions, which brokers the sales of used cars between consignors and dealers, is developing a system that will provide real-time inventory information to customers who want to track where their cars are in the sales process.

"We spent too much time trying to integrate a legacy accounting system. In the end, we had to build a new accounting system from scratch. Had we made that decision on day one, the project would be further along, and we would have spent less," says Donald Foy, manager of online operations for the Atlanta company.

Charge higher prices on the site than through other outlets.

Inconsistent pricing is another side effect of the insufficient integration of back-end systems.

"The unique pricing strategies, worked out with each business partner, are rarely evident on the e-commerce site. Why would a partner use a site that charges a higher price for a product than the one available over the phone?" asks Mitch Ruud, manager of e-commerce for Great Plains Software in Fargo, North Dakota.

Your customers won't use your site just to make your life simpler.

Don't provide a feedback mechanism.

By omitting simple, e-mail-enabled feedback, you cut yourself off from important information.

First, you'll never know whether your site meets your customer's needs because they won't be able to tell you. Second, you can't gather suggestions for improvement. And third, you fail to provide good service, an important facet in the faceless world of e-commerce.

Build something your partners will refuse to use.

Self-evident perhaps, but an inordinate number of businesses overlook the following fact: If it's easier to phone in an order, safer to fax it on paper or less expensive to maintain the status quo than it is to use your e-commerce site, that site will always go unused.

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