Small Online Businesses: Take Note

I hate malls. My wife hates malls. My dogs hate malls.

For the Blankenhorn family, online shopping is the greatest invention since sliced cheese. As soon as the Thanksgiving dishes were put away, we headed down the DSL freeway for a day’s Christmas shopping.

Our first stop was to do some price comparisons on mySimon.com. I wanted the best price on a new bicycle computer, or so I thought.

It turned out that the best price available was at a shop I’d never heard of, EZ2BuyOnline.com.

Because I’d never heard of this outfit, I checked out its home page and looked up the company on register.com. EZ2BuyOnline.com turned out to be a couple of guys from Rogers, Ark. I wondered where that was. MapQuest.com revealed it to be a dozen miles from Bentonville. That’s the home base of Wal-Mart, isn’t it?

Well, gee, I thought, this could be a Wal-Mart skunkworks, or these guys could be former Wal-Mart executives, or it could all be a coincidence. I looked for a phone number or email address and found nothing useful on the site. In fact, careful observation indicated that no one was home at EZ2BuyOnline.com, just a bunch of computers with products and a toll-free number. So I went here instead. I spent more, but I knew if I had trouble, there would be someone to talk with.

This desire for transparency inspired the rest of my Christmas shopping. I wound up taking care of most of my needs at Amazon.com. I was lured in by an offer of free shipping on orders of $100 or more. That seemed reasonable.

Had Amazon.com been able to pick, pack, and ship all my stuff at once, I’m certain they could have made a pretty penny off me. But over the last three weeks I’ve gotten a half-dozen shipments from them, some from the UPS truck and some in the mailbox. My family in California got three more packages. Amazon.com detailed the shipping costs on the emails it sent me: They came to nearly $23 on a $200 order. Is it possible they still made a profit? It’s possible, barely, so long as I don’t have to make any returns.

I learned quite a lot from all this. I don’t just want the best price from an online merchant. I don’t just want a pretty site. I want what can best be termed as transparency. I want to know there is someone on the other side of the transaction, someone I can have confidence in, someone I can reach.

A brand name, like Performance Bike, can provide transparency, which in turn inspires trust. An ongoing relationship, like that with Amazon.com, can do this. (Of course, transparency and trust hardly guarantee the merchant a profit.) What could EZ2BuyOnline.com have done to win my business?

The answer to that is simple. The owners could be there. They could let me know that a physical location, a local phone number, and a real business are behind the site. They could have had a realistic “about us” page, real email addresses they would respond to (an email I sent to an address found on register.com bounced), and a real phone number answered by someone other than an operator.

I like small shops. I regularly use a small independent drug store, a small independent food store, and a small local bookstore. Why do I patronize small businesses? Because I know if I have a question or a problem, someone can help me.

I would like to shop at small businesses online. Thousands of companies could compete with Amazon.com if they just provided the information necessary to inspire trust. But they have to provide it.

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