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Wednesday, April 19, 2000
The Online Plumbing Store

Coming home today I found an e-mail from a plumbing company in Oregon asking me to give them some ideas how they could use the Internet to benefit their business. I took it as a personal challenge, as I cannot think of a kind of company which is further away from the e-commerce/Internet frenzy than a small-town plumbing company. I suspect that even in 2050 people will still walk down to the hardware store to buy pipe. However, I believe there are many ways that such companies can use the Internet to benefit their business even today. Here is my reply:

1. LONG TERM. I think its important to see investing in the Internet as a long-term investment. The trends toward business-to-consumer e-commerce, business-to-business e-commerce, business-to-employee e-commerce, wireless Internet devices and information on demand are slow but sure, and they will affect all businesses in some way, so it is important to invest now and grow slowly with the technology. Realize that in 3 - 5 years, a significantly larger number of people are going to be savvy with the Internet. You have to be ready for them.

2. E-MAIL. E-mail is a killer application and will be the basis of communication for a long time to come. Invest time and money in making sure all your employees can use e-mail effectively. Make standards for your e-mails. Where I work one of the first things the marketing director did is create a color signature with company name, logo, mission and contact information and she made a company requirement that all employees use this signature in external e-mails. It's free advertising and looks very professional. Also, answer e-mails promptly.

3. WEEKLY NEWSLETTER. Send out newsletters to customers informing them of deals, coupons, special rates. Why not have a sign at the cash register saying "sign up for our free e-mail newsletter." This has got to be one of the biggest missed opportunities of retail stores today. Compare the cost and time of weekly printing out and sending 200 brochures with sending out 200 e-mails. If people are already physically in your store, they are probably interested in future deals.

4. DYNAMIC WEB SITE. You should be able to change the information on your web site quickly and easily. A static web site which only the "web master" can change gets old as fast as a today's newspaper and it is expensive and time-consuming to have changed. Invest in a web site which allows you to log into your computer at the beginning of the week, type in the special deals of the week, what you want your customers to know, new developments which highlight advantages of your company and some freebies for your customers, then press a button and the information is on your web site. Press another button and this information goes out as a newsletter via e-mail to 200 of your customers. The technology to do this exists and will pay for itself many times over in the future. Find a web developer who can program such a site for you.

5. MAKE YOUR WEB SITE POPULAR. Search machines are important but not the only way to get your site popular. Include your web site address on all electronic and paper correspondence, on all business cards and on your store window. Paint your web site address on the side of your vehicles. Learn how to use newsgroups to answer peoples questions while mentioning your company and its services. Invest in small ads in newspapers with one sentence and your web site address. Think of your web site as the hub of a virtual community, give them a reason to come back: updated information, daily humor, or free tips and advice.

6. THINK SYNERGY. The strength of any network is the synergy which it can create. A computer store here in Berlin allows its employees to contribute to a newsletter which gets professionally published every week. I find reading this amateur but "true geek" newsletter much more interesting and informative than the more perfect marketing pamphlets which you can only half believe. Would your employees be open to writing articles which appear on the web site and go out in newsletters? These articles could be about how employees solved specific problems or helped customers. Your web site should be programmed in such a way that these articles are automatically in an archive which is searchable at any time via keyword at any time by web site visitors.

7. BE OPEN TO MOVE HORIZONTALLY. Amazon started out selling books, then began selling CDs, toys, and now many other kinds of items. One of the cheapest ways to access the Internet here in Germany is through a car rental company. You may start out as a plumbing company with a web site but turn into the town's number one portal information site, just by collecting links on your site to interesting things in town and earn substantial revenue from selling advertisements.

8. STAY INFORMED. I believe that businesses are in for some substantial challenges in the years ahead, for instance, when we can use our cell phones to scan a UPC code from any product and have our cell phones immediately search the web for the lowest price of that article and order it in one click. This hyper competition is going to be hard on companies who have not grown with the technology. Stay informed on new technologies coming out in your area of business so that you can make accurate decisions as we move into a world increasingly determined by the efficiency of technology.

Edward Tanguay

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