Technology and evolving consumer habits are affecting virtually every business, and mail order is no exception. The cutting-edge direct marketers are putting their catalogs online so customers can browse, select products, ask questions and place orders via the their home PCs.
"Online purchasing is an extension of the mail order business," explains Ken McCarthy, president of Internet consulting company E-Media in San Francisco. "It's just another way to present your goods to the market."
McCarthy believes a small but growing number of people prefer to shop, get information and order merchandise online. "One of the tenets of mail order is to make it as easy as you possibly can for people to do business with you," he says. That means accepting orders by mail, phone, fax and online.
But success in this arena requires more than just "going online." "No one on their right mind would think that simply getting a phone number or opening a post office box is going to generate business," McCarthy says. "Similarly, simply setting up an online presence is not going to generate business for anybody. You need to integrate your online presence with some good old-fashioned marketing."
Before deciding to go online, consider your market and your product. Is it likely that your potential customers use PCs, modems, and online services? Since online shopping by the general public is relatively new, McCarthy says the best current online opportunities are selling computers and computer-related products, such as software, peripherals or computer books.
But even if your product does not fall into either one of those catagories, McCarthy advises becoming familiar with online marketing now, while the opportunity is still in its infancy.
"I don't see it as a massive money maker this minute, unless you're in a particular niche market," he says. "But if you're serious about mail order or direct marketing, this is something you have to get involved in."
Online marketing offers some significant advantages over traditional print ads and catalogs:
- You are not limited by the price of printing and postage, which makes online selling extremely economical. (Costs vary tremendously depending on the level of service you use; shop several online providers before making a decision).
- You can change your content quickly, easily and at virtually no cost.
- An online catalog is easily searchable (all shoppers have to do is type in a key word or two to get the information they want).
- Technology allows you to offer audio and video clips with product demonstrations.
- You can provide your customers with an essentially infinite amount of product information.
If you're interested in developing an online presence:
- Get comfortable with the technology. Buy a modem and learn how to use it. Log onto one of the major online services to see what other people are doing.
- Visit other online companies. Browse through the online malls, checking out companies that use various online marketing techniques.
- Join discussions groups. All online services have discussion groups on a wide range of topics. Become an active member of these groups and you'll find friendly people worldwide willing to offer plenty of free advice.
- Begin with a basic online address. If your catalog or ad invites people to call or write for more information, add your online contact information as an option.
- As your business grows, expand the sophistication and service level of your online presence.
- The people who are going to succeed with online catalog marketing are the ones who take the time to study what works in the print world, predicts McCarthy. "If Richard Sears and Montgomery Ward could be reborn today and see the Internet, they'd be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of these online opportunities."