What Does E-Tailing Deliver That Customers Can’t Live Without?

Do you spend a lot of time online? If you do, you probably research, work, read, entertain yourself, and shop online — just like I do. While you’re doing that, have you ever stopped to think that most of the writers and readers of ClickZ are in the minority? Many of us have broadband connections, and our vocations and avocations lead to us to spend much more time online than the average consumer. Let’s consider, or maybe reconsider, the value of doing business online.

In my article “Why Should I Buy From You?,” I discussed your unique selling proposition (USP), a simple statement about your business or brand — just a quick, clear sentence or two at most — that tells your prospects why you are the only alternative for them. Here I’m asking a somewhat different question: What value should your prospect assign to your Web site?

If your Web site is not merely an additional distribution channel for your existing clientele’s convenience, then this question is vitally important to the health of your business. If you can’t articulate what itch you are scratching, your prospective customers will go elsewhere.

We recently took on a new client that only sells online, Online Sports. Beyond our concerns for its site, we were concerned about its viability as a pure-play e-tailer. What reassured us was its longevity (it was founded in 1996) and that it had a really unique value proposition. It carries more than 45,000 sports-related items, many of them hard to find, so it is a natural e-tailer. We helped the company articulate that value proposition and then present it on the site. What keeps OnlineSports.com in business isn’t venture capital. It stays in business because it is committed to providing a huge selection, great convenience, and exceptional service — things customers value.

I read a lot, and many of the books I read are not widely available. I shop for books online not because of price but because of the enormous selection and the convenience. So whether I go to Amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com (I’m a B&N man myself, because of the service), I know that I’m more likely to find what I want and be able to buy it with much less hassle than offline. That’s a heck of a value proposition.

I also have two dogs, but I never bought anything from Pets.com. I really did love the sock puppet; it just wasn’t a compelling enough reason to buy. I have happily shopped for DJ and Brandi at DrsFosterSmith.com. Its Web site’s educational component complements the catalog business with the following value proposition:

Dr. Foster and Dr. Smith still personally select every product that goes into our catalogs. Each new healthcare item is reviewed by the doctors to ensure you receive only the highest quality medical, nutritional and health-related products on the market.

Our catalogs and Web site are filled with informative, useful articles written by the doctors to help you better understand and care for your pet. Many of these articles will also be posted in our Pet Education site which we encourage you to visit.

So are the good e-tailing business opportunities already taken? No! I’ve recently become a customer of mycereal.com (notice that I qualify as a real customer only because I’ve gone back and re-ordered).

If you had told me last year that I’d be buying breakfast cereal on the Web, I’d have thought you were insane. Nevertheless, I love MyCereal.com because it gives me what I want. I get to choose, from dozens of fresh ingredients, exactly what goes into my cereal. It’s convenient because the folks there make my portions for me in the quantity I want and in the container I want. Plus — and pay attention, Internet marketers — they have incredible service backed up by an ingenious follow-up email campaign. This business is a winner because General Mills, a stodgy, old company, found a way to deliver enough value to me, as an e-tail customer, that I gladly pay more for my cereal and will continue to do so.

So have I detoured from my usual subject, converting Web site traffic? Perhaps just a bit. However, even with all the billions of dollars being spent at e-tailers, the industry is still in its infancy; there is a whole lot more to accomplish, and I want to make sure we do accomplish it. Go back to whatever you were doing before you read this article. Just ask yourself first: What does my e-tailing business model deliver that my customers can’t live without?

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