How Offline Businesses Can Improve Their Web Sites

From the archives…

I started building web sites in 1995. Back then, the web was very non-commercial and most businesses had to be convinced that they even needed a web site. Oh how things have changed. But in some cases, it seems the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Some businesses that are very strong offline use their sites primarily for ecommerce. Ecommerce is obviously a fantastic invention and I cannot tell you the despair I feel when I go to a site only to find that you can’t actually BUY anything on it. You can only look at things you could buy if only you weren’t wearing pajamas and slippers and weren’t so lazy that you could get into your car and fight traffic and stand in line and I’m tired just thinking about all of it. So, I am a strong proponent of ecommerce.

But if your business is not web only and has an offline presence as well, you’ve got to consider all those visitors who aren’t going to the site to buy things, but for other reasons. And you should think of your visitors as customers of your business and not just the online division.

1. Don’t make me guess where you’re located.
Don’t hide that “store locator” link in tiny type in the footer of the page. Why are you trying to keep me out of your store? I know that in some companies, the online division is measured on how much revenue it brings in and perhaps you are trying to trick people into thinking your stores are somehow no longer available and the only shopping option is on the site, but that is not the way. We still know the stores exist. Really. If the issue really is that you are trying to get customers to buy online rather than in-store to meet numbers projections, change the metrics used in success measurement. Make a convincing case for tracking how you drive people to the physical stores.

If the issue is that the store locator option doesn’t go well with the online shopping menu options, there are lots of ways make it both easy to find and non-obtrusive. But I think mostly it’s not these things, it’s just that the designer is focused on thinking of visitors who are coming to buy and forget that sometimes, people are coming for other things.

2. Give me lots of data about you.
I needed to go to a particular store the other day and was wondering when they closed. So, I went on the site and found the store locator link pretty easily. But instead of store hours, I got this message that each location may have different hours, so to call them up and see. Really? Do your stores change their hours that often that you can’t put a process in place to keep the site updated? I’d also like to know your return policy and things like that. And since I’m wishing, why not give me inventory numbers so I know if you even have what I need in stock before I get there. It’s the age of technology! Let’s mash up your inventory system and your web site and call it web 2.0 reloaded!

3. Give me the same deal if I buy online, call, or go into you store.
I am dealing with a company, not with the the online storefront or the physical storefront or the floating-on-the-clouds-you-can-only-get-to-us-if-you-own-an-air-balloon storefront. I’m buying something from your company. Why could I find the discounted price for that monitor on the web site, but when I called, the rep on the phone had no clue what I was talking about?

Airlines are particularly bad with this. They not only have different fares online than on the phone, but they charge you extra to book elsewhere than online. In that case, I get that they are trying to save money on telephone agents, and I suppose if you are trying to transition to an online-only business model, more power to you, but it can make it difficult for me, the consumer, to do business with you, the company. For instance, in the case of airlines, I can’t use the value of an unused ticket online, but if I call to use the credit, I can’t get the online price. That makes entirely no sense.

And why have some of your merchandise be web only? You don’t have enough room in your stores for it or it’s not quite good enough to make the physical floor space cut? I’m suspicious.

4. Make returns easy.
Take some of the risk out of shopping online. Going back to the I’m doing business with your company, not your online division mantra, let me return my online purchases at the store.

5. Let me contact you.
If I’m in the physical store, I can talk to an actual physical person. I’m spending just as much money online as I would be at the store. And yet when I click the contact us link, I get an email address. So, I’m supposed to formulate my question in an email, wait for a response, ask a follow up, and so on, until maybe in a week or two, I’m ready to buy. In most cases, there is a phone number somewhere, but it’s like a treasure hunt to find it. As fun as treasure hunts are, I’m more in the mood to give you money for stuff that you’re selling. Let me do that. In fact, put your phone number at the bottom (or top) of every page just to make it easy. Believe me, I’m much less likely to abandon the purchasing process if I can just glance over at your number when I need it.

6. Please God, don’t put all your products in Flash.
Right. This one really doesn’t have anything to do with a brick and mortar business, but how can I send the link to that perfect shoe around to all my friends and see if they too think it’s perfect or if I am simply caught up in a shoe-buying frenzy that comes from the easy click of a button if I have to say, go to this one page and then click this and then that and then scroll in the tiny little box in the middle and then eventually you’ll see this shoe, it’s got these checkers and … That’s just not good for anyone.

7. Make sure the web site works.
This is really for all ecommerce sites too, but since I’m ranting, I may as well throw it in. It doesn’t matter how well optimized the site is for search engines or how many backlinks it has or have pretty and usable the site is. If the customer gets to the end of the purchase process and the billing doesn’t work or the shopping cart errors out and the customer can’t actually buy anything, well… it’s possible that if that customer has spent all this time comparing items and researching and placing them into her cart and then when she clicks buy, her cart empties or the site won’t actually ever take her credit card, she might just fire up her blog and post a rant about it. Just sayin’.

12 thoughts on “How Offline Businesses Can Improve Their Web Sites

  • Chris Bartow

    Great article! As someone that builds web sites for small businesses it’s sometimes hard to convince them to do even the basic things.

    “I don’t want to put my hours, cause they change. You can just put call for hours.”

    Then I get to explain how people on the Internet want instant gratification and if you call and you don’t pick up they have already moved on or they may just say I’ll find someone else that I know is open.

  • amberlynne

    Thank you! I just tried to buy something at and it took three tries and now I have two “pending authorizations” that they assure me will not go through and be off my account in 3-5 days. Of course, that’s $200 of credit that I won’t have for the next week because neither my bank nor Macy’s can do anything about it. Fantastic!

    I would like restaurants and bars that have Web sites to also put stuff on them. Even if it’s just a sampling of what I might find on the menu. I like to plan ahead, especially when I am trying to eat better. What’s the point of having a site if all I can do is look at how pretty the interior is and a few pictures of the fanciest dishes? Show me the food and the prices, please!

  • Sebastian

    I love your insightful rants πŸ™‚ Just a tiny nitpicking detail … I can’t sphinn the post on the home page. The Sphinn widget there points to although the JS looks ok with the correct submit URL. Perhaps removing the backslashes “‘” uncovers the post’s URL on the home page.

  • Yuri

    Unfortunately, companies spend money only when they can make more money, which means that we (site building people) need to educate them about this. And that we seldom do.

    One particular client I am working right now is particularly receptive to my advice (and I am eternally grateful for it), so things tend to get better (I hope).

  • Rajesh

    Really a great article. Actually we were about host a new version of our companies online shop. But now I feels like slight alternations are necessary before going online..

    Great Article Vanessa

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  • identity

    Lovely as ever… and the article was spot on as well. All great points, but I particularly loved #3 due to a recent experience.

    I’ve never been a huge Circuit City fan, but starting to sway that way, and they certainly due well on a lot of the online elements.

    But as I’m traveling more, I decided I should probably modernize a bit and get an mp3 player… and let’s face it, in this day an age, how much trust could you place in someone who doesn’t own an mp3 player?

    An this decision was for an immediate trip that I was leaving for the next day; so not a lot of time for deep research. So off to C|Net to read some reviews and check the online sites for the local stores.

    I bypassed the iPod bug… I figured you owned enough for both of us πŸ˜‰ and settled on a SanDisk Sansa, and saw that Circuit City had it listed for $99 (give or take, mostly take, some change) as did CompUSA. Being slightly closer, I headed to Circuit City. But then they didn’t even have one on display and I barely even noticed that they had them in the cabinet below, but the real kicker was the $129 or whatever price tag.

    At that point I decided that I couldn’t be bothered to talk to a salesperson, so I left and headed to CompUSA, who in turn was sold out. So I returned to Circuit City, and pleasantly learned that they would honor their online pricing.

    But did they win this sale because they had great information on their website? Or because they had great pricing (at least as low as anyone in town)? Or because their website could even tell me that they had the product in stock? Or that they list their hours (not really because I actually went there another evening to find that they were closed “early” and that nearly put me off them entirely… oh well, they lost the sale of a laptop that night)? Or even because they would honor their online pricing? No… they one the sale first and foremost because CompUSA was out of stock (or so I assume since there weren’t any on the shelf… I couldn’t be bothered to talk to a salesperson there either), and secondarily because I was persistent in spite of them.

    So absolutely, hugely, great point Vanessa. And note to businesses: relying on the persistence of your customers to help you make the sale is never a good position to be in… nearly anyone can come along and do better.

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  • Rebecca

    Excellent advice. We’ve been a brick and mortar store since before the term “brick and mortar store” meant anything and have only recently started using a website. Like most small businesses, we farm out our website to people who are supposed to know how to do it better than we do. I find that the conflict between the needs of the folks who are going to walk into the store with their online shopping cart printout in hand and the needs of those who are in another country and don’t even want our phone number — combined with the aforementioned farming out — makes it difficult to decide how to structure things. Your list provides some perspective. Thanks!

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  • Alan Bleiweiss Not Nude

    begin petpeeves

    step into the shoes…

    Why don’t site owners, web developers, site designers, copy editors… take the time beforehand to step into the shoes of their visitors? To me, that’s a fundamental rule for any service or product someone wants to sell or present to another human being.

    To get into that person’s mind-set so that you can gain a better understanding of what it is they want, what it is they need, what it is you can do to provide a higher quality experience, make it more effortless for that person to first open themselves to you as a trustworthy source, second to then take on a certain amount of believability about what it is you are offering, and ultimately to be motivated to want to buy your product or hire you for your service.

    And all along the way, it should be an effortless experience for that person.

    Yet time and again I’ve found that my prospective clients are surprised and frequently say “oh – that’s a good idea…”


    Let’s take it further – why don’t more developers and designers do the footwork to see and learn what really is working out there in the competitive arena before they hack together a mediocre site that pales in comparison to the competition? Sure, my Fortune 1000 clients can afford to keep up with the competition. Yet a small business owner (90% of my clients) can’t afford NOT to nowadays.

    Back in 95 when I first started (hey Vanessa I didn’t know you’d been in the biz that long – that’s hot!) it wasn’t so important. Now though, especially with so many open-source hiqh quality solutions as a foundation for a site- there’s no excuse.



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