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Tapping the Web’s Wonders

Many early-adapting businesses have struggled with how best to use the new medium. Commonly, companies fail to exploit the capacity for interactivity, offering static sites that serve as electronic versions of brochures. Successful companies, in contrast, have developed dynamic, information-rich sites that create an informal, often whimsical atmosphere that consumers enjoy searching whether they buy products or not, and that take advantage of the Internet’s unique attributes. Good Web business sites offer visitors a wealth of useful, diverting information in addition to detailed product descriptions. Virtual Vineyards, for instance, publishes a “tasting chart” that helps shoppers learn how to judge wines by intensity, sweetness, body, acidity, tannin oak, and complexity. It also provides a glossary of frequently used terms and tips on how to mix wine and food and an archive of menus, including recipes and wine choices, for a variety of holidays and special occasions.

Online booksellers are also employing innovative ways to use free information to stimulate sales. Amazon.com devotes a Web page to each book that the cyberstore sells, and many of the more popular offerings feature links to author interviews and reviews by professional critics. Another Internet bookstore, PureFiction in England, not only reprints snippets of critical reactions to its featured offerings but also publishes sample chapters and offers five-minute audio excerpts of its books on tape.

Early-adapting companies have found that too much visual sophistication can be counterproductive. Frustrated shoppers bail out of business Web sites quickly when detailed renderings of products or other images take too long to load on their computer screens. ReadMe.Doc, a computer-book retailer in Chambersburg, Pa., recently scaled back on the number of graphic images on its site because “it was taking too long for someone with a 14.4-kilobit-per-second modem to get a page up,” says president Christopher Kendall.

In a similar vein, Perry Lopez, creator of Hot Hot Hot, a hot-sauce retailer in Los Angeles, stresses the importance of easy navigation. He has tried to create a Web site where customers have to click only once from the home page to get to key information in any given category. But such an approach is a matter of personal taste; some Web users prefer pages with small amounts of information and frequent links.

Internet business experts caution would-be cybermarketers that good Web site design takes time. It is deceptively easy to throw together a quick-and-dirty Web page in a few hours. But a high-quality site that customers will feel comfortable visiting and revisiting requires planning and maintenance. Successful electronic merchants make detailed studies of commercial Web sites before designing or opening an electronic business. For instance, Darryl Peck says he “spent 16 hours a day checking out Web sites” before formulating a business plan for Cyberian Outpost. Similarly, the founders of Amazon.com spent a year learning the business before going online, according to Scott Lipsky, vice- president of business expansion.

Web business veterans recommend bringing in outsiders or customers to evaluate a new site before launch. AMP, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of electronic and electrical connectors, took a year to develop a Web site allowing online parts purchase. For almost six months before the site officially opened, major customers piloted the new system and offered comments on its usability, according to Robert Orendorf, project manager for AMP eMerce Internet Solutions. And Virtual Vineyards took nine months to develop a product inventory system to support the company’s Web site, accommodating more than 75 wineries and 45 specialty-food companies.

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