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Blue Cat Design Web 101

Online Commerce - Is the Web ready and open for business?

by Christine Collie Rowland, Blue Cat Design

What makes the World Wide Web such a great vehicle for commerce is that it links so many people together, all over the world. No matter how tiny a niche your product or service is aimed at, you'll find some interest because the global market is so vast.

The latest FIND/SVP study of the Web as marketplace indicates growing willingness to buy products electronically. According to research from Jupiter Media Metrix, JMM predicted in March 2002 that the total online shopping population will grow to 132 million over the next five years, up from 66 million this year.

CyberAtlas reports that US online retail sales amounted to USD 10.04 billion during Q4 2001. This figure is from a new report released by the United States Department of Commerce. It is 13.1 percent higher than the total for Q4 2000, and 34.4 percent higher than Q3 2001. Total online sales for last year were estimated by the Department at USD 32.6 billion, an increase of 19.3 percent on 2000.

Anyone who wants to set up shop on the Internet can do it right now, with existing, widely-used security software, and the real risk will be far lower than that faced by the average store owner who has to deal with break-ins, stick-ups, shoplifters, counterfeiters and all the other hazards of the retail business. On the buyer's side, sending your credit card information over a secure Internet hookup is safer than giving it to somebody over the telephone, which most of us do from time to time, to make a purchase or hold a hotel room or send flowers.

The most common method of online commerce is the use of "Secure" servers. You may have noticed the little key symbol on the bottom left corner of the Netscape browser window: when the key is shown broken, it means it's not a commerce secure site; when the key is whole, it is a secure site. (You can also tell if it's a secure site by the Web address which switches from "http://" to "https://")

And pressure is building for common protocols for use of e-cash on the Net, so that buyers can make purchases from vendors no matter whether or not they use the same virtual banking systems. A growing number of companies, including Visa, American Express and Citibank, are working on developing the necessary encryption protocols.

Industry analysts estimate that as much of half of private sector economic transactions will eventually be conducted on the Net. Soon from the comfort of your home or office, you'll be able to bypass store lineups by ordering and paying for just about anything imaginable over the Net.

Currently, the biggest selling items over the Web are software, books and music CDs. But many smaller niche virtual storefronts - Web sites selling specialty items like replica carousel horses, customized golf bags, collectible dolls, or professional services such as legal, accounting, training, etc. - are also having success.

A number of off-the-shelf "shopping cart" software programs are starting to appear that a computer-savvy retailer could modify to produce simple online ordering. More advanced ordering and customer tracking requirements can be solved with custom programming. (We would be happy to show you a working demo of one of our online stores that can accept credit card orders.) Arrangements can be made with order-fulfilment companies to receive the online order, process the credit card and ship your product.

If you've got a product or service to sell, it makes sense to consider the Web: the technology, though in its infancy, is workable now, and surveys show that more than half of Net surfers are interested in making online purchases.

More Web 101 quick articles & tips at Blue Cat Design.

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