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E-commerce: Behind the scenes

Selling on the Web is the trendy thing to do, but there are many other reasons to sell online. Brien Posey discusses some of these reasons and offers a peek at the complex tasks going on behind the scenes at today's hottest e-stores.


Have you watched a commercial on TV lately? If so, you might have noticed that practically every commercial promotes a Web site. Even many traditional brick-and-mortar businesses are selling goods on the Web. Selling on the Web is definitely the trendy thing to do. However, there are many other reasons to sell online. In this Daily Feature, I’ll discuss some of these reasons. I’ll also reveal some of the hidden complexity behind e-commerce sites.

Why sell online?
There are just as many reasons for selling products online as there are businesses selling online. Perhaps the most obvious of these reasons is that you can reach so many people. If Mom and Pop open up a brick-and-mortar business down the street, they’re probably planning to sell only to people in the neighborhood. But give Mom and Pop a Web site, and all of a sudden they can sell products to people all over the world.

Another reason to set up an e-commerce business is that people expect it. Personally speaking, I would be greatly disturbed if I wanted to find out more about a product or buy a certain product and couldn’t find it on the Web. Unless I had a very specific need, I would probably buy a different product—one that I could research and/or buy online.

Still another reason to sell online is cost. Sure, it will cost you a bundle to build and maintain a good Web site, but you can greatly reduce your overhead by doing so. Selling on the Web is like having a chain of stores all over the world without having to lease the buildings, or pay utilities, or pay salespeople, or pay cleaning people—and the list goes on and on.

Perhaps the biggest reason for selling online is that you can force your customers to see exactly what you want them to see. At the recent Communications and Technology Expo, I attended a compelling speech by Shamir Dasgupta, the CEO of Xpressions Interactive . Shamir gave a fascinating speech on the topic of direct marketing to your customers.

When Xpressions develops a Web store, it builds in a certain amount of intelligence that’s designed to collect a plethora of information on customers. Upon the initial visit to the site, customers can enter their name, shipping information, and billing information. This information is retained in a SQL database so that the next time the customer visits the site they don’t have to re-enter it. This allows for one-click shopping, a huge timesaver.

The Xpressions e-commerce sites are also designed to build a history of products that a customer has bought and maintain that history in a database. Each product is associated with keywords. Each time a customer comes back, the site uses these keywords to present the customer with a screen featuring products that may match the customer’s interest based on his or her past buying history. For example, suppose you owned an e-commerce record store. If a customer bought a Judas Priest CD the last time he or she visited the site, you might show that customer other CDs similar to Judas Priest.

Obviously, such a screen is tailored to the individual customer. However, it can also be designed to push specials before displaying general merchandise. For example, suppose your record store was running a sale on albums by The Dixie Chicks, Britney Spears, and Ozzy Osbourne. You probably wouldn’t want to insult the guy who’s been buying the Judas Priest CDs with advertisements for The Dixie Chicks or Britney Spears. You would probably want them to know that Ozzy Osbourne CDs were on sale, though. Therefore, the page could be tailored to display sale or promotional items that are in the buyer’s area of interest first and then display other non-promotional items in the buyer’s area of interest.

Automating processes
One final advantage to having an online store is that it can automate manual processes. Suppose you’re selling albums online and someone wants to buy a Metallica CD. Your Web store could be linked to your inventory database so that the Web store can check to see whether the CD is in stock. If the CD isn’t in stock, many e-businesses have private sites which link to their suppliers. The site could then use this link to order the CD from your supplier and check on how long the CD will take to arrive. Your page could then check with the delivery service you use and find out whether the service will be able to deliver the CD to the customer when it does come in. You could send a message to your customer saying something like, “The Metallica CD that you purchased is currently out of stock. We’ll have a copy in stock by tomorrow, and it will be in your hands by Friday. Your UPS tracking number is ABCXYZ.”

The intelligence that’s built into such sites doesn’t just help to keep the product moving and expedite ordering; it serves other purposes as well. Behind the scenes, order information can be sent to your accounting department so that at any time they can see what the sales are for the quarter with the click of a mouse. Likewise, the automatic ordering from suppliers can be written so that the ordering is done before you actually run out of a product. The inventory can be automatically updated when this ordering occurs.

Conclusion
In this Daily Feature, I’ve explained why there’s money to be made in e-commerce. I’ve also given you a peek at some of the complex tasks that go on behind the scenes at today’s hottest e-stores.

Brien M. Posey is an MCSE and works as a freelance technical writer and as a network engineer for the Department of Defense. If you’d like to contact Brien, send him an e-mail. (Because of the large volume of e-mail he receives, it's impossible for him to respond to every message. However, he does read them all.)

The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.

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