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.::7 Cardinal Sin of Ecommerce

by Frank Fiore the Author of Complete Idiot's Guide to Starting an Online Business

I was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition. I have fond memories of the Catholic grammar school I attended while I was a kid. And on these occasions I recall Sister Mary Theresa. I remember her clearly for her quick wit in class and hard ruler across the knuckles. She also taught one of my first religion classes that all good Catholic boys and girls were required to take.

And like all good Catholic children, we were taught to avoid the seven cardinal sins of Vanity, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Wrath, and Sloth.

Now that I'm an Internet professional, I can see a strong resemblance between the seven cardinal sins taught to me as a child and the seven cardinal sins of e-commerce.

So, here they are, along with some ways to avoid them.

.::Vanity: Going It Alone
There's a saying that goes, "You can do anything on the Internet-but you can't do it alone." In the world of e-commerce, outsourcing is not an evil word. Many new web stores fail to succeed due to a lack of professional design and programming know-how.

The biggest challenge to a new e-business is not so much the technical aspects--although they're important--but how best to execute your business plan.

Too few businesses on the Net use the resources available to take orders, clear credit cards, host sites, build stores, and so on. You can spend valuable time and resources building a site, hiring professionals to do the necessary programming, buying software and hardware, and paying advertising agencies. Instead, partner with companies on the Net that supply free or nearly-free resources to set up and run your business.

Sure, having a store on Yahoo! or selling other merchants' products through an affiliate program is not as glamorous as having your own custom online business. But if you're just starting out in the world of e-commerce or have limited funds, partnering with other sites on the web is a smart thing to do.

Even if you have the wherewithal to build a custom, one-of-a-kind web store, you can still partner with other sites to save time and money. You can include information content and community elements on your site by partnering with content and community providers that syndicate their programs to sites free of charge. For example, don't want to go through the hassle of setting up a merchant account to clear credit cards? Partner with one of the web-based credit card solution providers such as iBill or CCBill.

But you can't do it alone. There is a lot of help out there in cyberspace. Learn to use it by partnering with other web companies.

.::Greed: Forcing a Square Peg into a Round Hole
Your product sells well in the real world. It should sell just as well online, right? Wrong! Just because a particular product sells well in retail stores, that doesn't mean that it will sell well online. Take a hard look at the products or even services you want to sell over the Net, and ask yourself these questions:

Can my product or service be pictured and clearly understood through electronic means only? Until virtual reality becomes a reality, viewing a product through cyberspace will never replace the hands-on experience of the real world. So, pick a product to sell that doesn't require the shopper to physically handle before he or she can purchase it. If your product or service requires a personal sales touch, you might have problems selling it online.

Is my product heavy or bulky? Will it cost an exorbitant amount to ship the product to a customer? Selling refrigerators, washing machines, and wide-screen TVs (and 50-pound bags of dog food--remember might be a good idea, but think of the shipping costs to the customer and actually handling these items in your warehouse.

Do my products carry a high product liability? Handled improperly, some products can cause physical injury or property damage. Make sure that your products or services are covered by liability insurance. Find out who's responsible if someone is injured using your product or if your service doesn't deliver as promised.

Be sure you have all these questions answered before you set out to sell your product or service to the public. And before offering anything on the Net, evaluate its suitability for online sales.

.::Envy: Keeping Up with the Nerds
When a potential customer hits your site, is the first thing he or she sees a straight offer to buy, or a song-and-dance routine of Java applets, animated icons, Flash presentations, or other special effects that waste time--and delay the sale--for your visitor?

People don't care to be entertained with the equivalent of elevator music when they're looking to take action. Who cares if your competitor's web site won "Cool Site of the Day" awards? What counts in business is making sales. Don't force potential customers to sit through a flashy, long splash page before getting to the site's home page, or wait for a variety of images to appear, move around, and disappear from the screen before the home page loads. You can be sure that they'll be gone before your flashy animations are done.

Finally, be sensitive to customers with older systems (or limited time). If your site has a lot of flashy graphics, offer a text-only option for viewing your site.

.::Gluttony: Is It Bigger Than 60KB?
That pretty graphic on your home page that takes several minutes to load? Get rid of it. People want simplicity over cool graphics. Faster loading is better than eye candy. If your total page size is more than 60KB, put it on a diet. In fact, most designers agree that a page should not be more than 48KB--and that includes graphics.

If you're selling products on your web site, there's no getting around the need for product shots. If you need to place a lot of product shots on a page, use thumbnails (miniature pictures). If the shopper wants to see a larger version of the product, he or she can click the small version and be sent to a web page that contains only that product, along with a detailed description and buy button.

Get this: To create a good customer experience, use graphics only when they serve the customer's goals.
.::Sloth: Neglecting Security and Customer Convenience
Visitors need to be comfortable while they're shopping on your site. You achieve that goal by making your site easy to do business with, and offering a safe and secure way for shoppers to buy with their credit cards at your site.

People are concerned about sending their credit card numbers over the Net. Sure, they're getting more comfortable with the idea every day, but you still need to soothe the fears of your visitors by telling them--and I mean tell them--that your site is secure and that they can safely send credit card numbers to you over the Net.

Tell customers up front--on your home page--that their credit card purchases are secure. Direct them to a page on your site that explains how credit card numbers are protected when used on your site. To make them customers more secure, promise to pay the $50 liability that the shopper would incur from his or her bank if the card number happened to be stolen while used on your site.

Make it easy for customers to shop around your store by adding an online shopping cart. Think about this. You just selected a product to buy at your neighborhood store. To get another one, you need to pay for the first one, leave the store, and enter again. Sounds silly, right? Well, without a shopping cart on your site, that's exactly what you're asking your customers to do.

Here's another problem. If you really want to drive customers away from your site, make it hard to navigate. According to a research paper by Creative Good, Inc., "Thirty-nine percent of test shoppers failed in their buying attempts because sites were too difficult to navigate." Make your site navigation simple--not cute. Use labels such as Contact Us, About Us, Our Catalog, Services We Offer, or Shop Now. Forget naming sections Joy Ride, Buzz the Bean, or Cool Stuff.

Don't be lazy with security and convenience. Place your web store on a secure server and provide an easy-to-use shopping cart and site navigation system for your customers.

.::Lust: You Gotta Love Those Plug-Ins
Get this. You walk into your favorite retailer and at the door you're stopped and told to go down the block and get a special pass before you can enter the store. You comply, right? In their dreams! Or how about this one? You're at the checkout counter, ready to pay, but you're told to go across the street and buy a special wallet to complete the purchase.

Well, that's what you ask a visitor to your site to do when you tell them that they need a plug-in to view your site or a special e-wallet to make a purchase. People don't want to have to download anything to view your site or buy from you. Don't lust after some cool way to display the goods and content of your site, or offer a convenience that's inconvenient to get.

But suppose shoppers must download a plug-in to experience your products. For example, you have an online music store selling CDs. You want to give shoppers the opportunity to hear some sample tracks from a CD before they buy. They'll most certainly have to download an audio player plug-in such as RealPlayer if they don't already have it installed. If you say your site needs RealPlayer to listen to the sample CD tracks, make sure you provide a link to the download page on the RealPlayer web site.

If you keep it simple, you won't give your customer a reason to click his way over to a competitor.

.::Wrath: Do You Hate Your Customer?
Want to really drive customers from your site? Use frames, require registration, provide no site search engine, and ignore international customers.

Let's take these one at a time.

Framed sites are bad news. Most search engines can't find your site because the frames hide your real content from the search engine. Visitors can't bookmark the page they're actually interested in--only the framed page they're on. Also, customers can easily get lost navigating your site through frames. Oh, and don't throw in a lot of small pop-up windows giving a pitch after each mouse click--that really drives shoppers nuts.

If you want to irritate visitors and measure their time on your site in milliseconds, force them to register before using your site. How would you like to visit your local convenience store and, before you can enter the front door, you have to fill out a registration form? How much time would it take before you're on your way down the block to a competitor? The same goes for web sites. Ask visitors to register after they have purchased from you.

No search engine on your site? You might be saying goodbye to half your sales. Unless you're selling a highly customized item or service, remember that potential customers can get it elsewhere. If you don't help the customer find what he's looking for--and quickly--it's easy for him to hop to another site that will.

Don't forget that the first W in World Wide Web (www) stands for World. Think globally. Remember that users from other countries can easily access your site. If you want your e-business to be truly global, respect other cultures and keep in mind that they might not be familiar with American expressions or respond to American advertising.

Finally, be considerate of your shoppers. Tell them which web browsers to use to best view your site ("This page is best viewed by Netscape 3.0 and above"). And though techno-speak might be familiar to you, many newbies to the Net might not understand it. Don't confuse shoppers new to the Net by using techno-jargon.