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What Offline Business Owners Must Know About Online Storefronts

By Charles Hopkins Published 09/20/2007 | Internet
It's amazing and unfortunate that many website owners inadvertently put up barriers that discourage site visitors from actually doing business with them. This is especially true for people with brick-and-mortar businesses who are trying to build an online presence and who do not yet understand the differences between online and offline marketing.

If someone walks into your local storefront, especially if they've had to drive to get to it and drop a few coins in the parking meter, they're at least partly committed to spending some time in the store. They either want something specifically, in which case you're nearly guaranteed to make a sale, or they think your store probably offers what they want, so they're willing to spend the time to look around.

In either case, your friendly staff, attractive promotional displays and compelling sale prices can influence someone to make a purchase, even if it wasn't what they originally came for.

This seldom happens online. Your nearest competitor is only a quick Google search away, a new website visitor may have little or no solid reason to look around your site, and it often happens that you lose a would-be customer in the click of a mouse.

That's why it's important for website owners to remember that you need to put the most important, most compelling, most commonly-requested information right up front, preferably on the home page.

This is the exact opposite of a physical storefront, where you can put your sale items in the back of the store and count on people walking past the new merchandise to get to the clearance racks. Online, a visitor to your website will not spend any time looking around unless they can tell immediately that you probably have what they're looking for, whether that's information or designer handbags.

You must also consider the fact that website visitors need more overt assurance as to your company's legitimacy and trustworthiness than visitors to a physical storefront.

Someone who walks into a local store is subtly and sub-consciously bombarded with all sorts of sensory and intellectual cues that reassure them (or not) that it's safe to do business with this particular merchant. A store that is clean, well lit, intelligently laid out, with merchandise that fits the price being asked and helpful salespeople is more likely to be profitable than one that is not.

These factors are less visible online. Most would-be website owners realize that a site with blinking fonts and inconsistent navigation is a visitor turn-off, but still miss the mark by failing to reassure potential buyers. They neglect to include information on shipping, returns, privacy, guarantees and other store policies in a prominent location, which makes the customer uneasy and less likely to make a purchase.

One last tip for the storefront-owner-turned-website-owner, and that's to remember where and when site visitors come to your website. Many of your site visitors log on from work, or late at night, or when the kids are napping - and their first panicked impulse is to click away from your site if they're immediately greeting by loud music or an audio message from the company president. Those site add-ons can add value, but should be optional.

These differences between online and offline storefronts are among the most ignored. Paying attention to them right from the start can help make sure your website is as profitable as you dreamed it could be.