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By Ken Powell

Many businesses believe that the online gold rush witnessed during the late 90s is a revenue opportunity that has come and gone. The truth is that the e-commerce revolution is just getting underway.

In the past few years, online buying has grown to represent 5 percent of total consumer purchasing (expected to expand to 15 percent by 2010) and more importantly, Internet browsing influences 30 percent of in-store purchases, according to Forrester Research. Online retail sales, including auctions and travel, will more than double from $172 million in 2005 to $329 million in 2010.

Executives have finally realized that the costs, resource requirements and logistics of launching and operating an online storefront have plummeted. Simultaneously, market demand and online spend has grown by leaps and bounds. The result? There has never been a better time for businesses to sell online.

Some businesses have embraced online sales while others—particularly those with retail partners—are reluctant to create an online channel. Companies should challenge long-held beliefs that direct selling will negatively impact retail performance. It is the responsibility of the brand owner to stay close to the consumer and monitor changing behavior.

Businesses that use the Internet to merchandise, communicate with and sell to consumers are in a stronger position to directly learn about consumer preferences, purchase patterns and motivations. With the Internet expected to influence at least 50 percent of in-store purchases by 2010 (according to Jupiter Research), increased direct knowledge of the consumer will enhance future product developments and potential profitability.

In general, buyers want quality products, value, convenience, information and selection. Top-rated e-commerce experiences include attributes such as ease of navigation, visual appeal, merchandise assortment, ease of checkout and several options for delivery and return.

How Can You Do This?

There are three primary options for creating a successful e-commerce presence with a satisfactory customer experience:

• Build it from the ground up: It is possible to build a Web presence on your own, designing a Web site, creating online buying functionality, assigning and loading products into the online database, training yourself to use it, etc. This method is time-consuming, costly and frustrating, and it can take a long time to recognize the return on investment.

• Buy something off the shelf: Though easier than starting from scratch, off-the-shelf tools might not include all the functionality you want and need from your e-commerce site. Not to mention the extensive installation period and staff training it will require.

• Outsource everything: Use an e-commerce expert who will walk you through each piece of a comprehensive solution, helping you identify only those capabilities you need, and then quickly building and deploying a fully-customized, e-commerce site.

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Ken Powell is the CEO of Marketworks.
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