Absolute beginners: get selling online

Computer Weekly guided a retail micro-business through its first steps to online commerce. Paul Mason reports

Computer Weekly guided a retail micro-business through its first steps to online commerce. Paul Mason reports

Edwards & Todd could be the typical e-commerce start-up. Its owners live and breathe retail; they've just made some tough branding decisions; and Christmas trading could be crucial to future growth. There's only one problem - they're not online and they haven't got a computer.

Their small giftware shop in London's Bloomsbury is one of the millions of UK small businesses that has yet to take its first steps online. With Computer Weekly's help, however, they decided to give it a try.

As we worked through the options with co-owners Gary Edwards and Jonathan Todd, it became clear that, with Christmas looming, they just didn't want the expense of a PC or the hassle of learning how to use it.

Like most small businesses, the key decisions facing them have nothing to do with the Internet. They recently took over the shop and are on the verge of re-branding it as their own business; they've set themselves tough cash-flow targets; and the all-important Christmas season is looming.

The biggest obstacle to getting online, apart from time and money, was their perception of the opportunities and threats.

"If you divide the business into selling, buying and running the shop, I think the Internet would initially help us with buying," says Edwards. "Most of the companies we deal with are pushing their Web sites and I could see it being easier and quicker ordering online, not having to wait for reps to arrive, finding out whether suppliers have stocks of the things we need."

Todd says online catalogues cannot replace trade shows for specialist retailers because of the importance of the "look and feel" of the merchandise.

While they are vaguely aware that the competitors using the Internet might be a threat, they find it hard to quantify: "If I could learn what the actual threat to the business was, I think we'd be prepared to go online quicker," says Edwards.

The partners are most interested in the "community building" aspect of the Internet. The business is built on a community of loyal customers and Edwards wants to offer online promotions to nearby large workplaces to complement existing corporate discount schemes. So one of the first initiatives they plan is an e-mail push to existing customers.

Todd says that, as they've started to think about using e-mail to build a community, it's made them begin properly profiling the customer base. A quick verbal poll of regular customers reveals that the majority are on the Web, so the e-mail list is one of their first priorities.

"I would say we are mailing at least 500 regular customers using the Royal Mail." says Edwards. "That costs about £200 per mailing, and if we could reduce that virtually to zero that's one of the attractions of the Net."

They spent an afternoon in a nearby Web cafe looking for cheap or free site hosting. They settled on MSN's BCentral offering. The "business card" package offers Web-based e-mail plus a one page site and online admin tools like a calendar and file storage.

Even for novices, the MSN site is easy to set up. They log on, register and - not without a gulp - type in their credit card number. The Microsoft logo goes a long way to reassuring them that they won't get ripped off.

Within minutes of the transaction, they are into the site-building process. BCentral simply demands an address, an e-mail user name and password, some text and a slogan.

One of the interesting things about this process is the way it, again, stimulates them to think objectively about their business. Until this moment, they haven't had a marketing slogan. But after a few slugs of a Web cafe cappuccino they come up with "Contemporary gifts in the heart of Bloomsbury".

The site look and feel is chosen from four templates, all of which will be familiar to users of Powerpoint or Frontpage. They quickly decide on an "art deco" theme and press the go button. The site is set up immediately, without ever having to touch HTML - or even understand what it is. Within 24 hours, the domain name is registered and the branded e-mail becomes operational. It has cost just $39 (£25) for the full year.

BCentral offers an upgrade path towards more paid-for services, including multi-page Web site hosting, banner ad networks, search engine submissions and business services like payroll. It's all accessible from the Web - although BCentral relies heavily on cookies so Todd and Edwards will have trouble hot-desking across the Web cafes of Bloomsbury.

For now though, the business is happy just to be visible to the world. For less than £30, they've taken their first steps online. Small steps by the standards of most Computer Weekly readers, but a giant leap for this micro-business.

Where to go for good advice

Fear of bad advice is often cited by small firms as an obstacle to IT investment. So where would Edwards & Todd go for advice? "Books, other businesses, friends," says Edwards. "The previous place where I worked - another small retailer - was always 'about to go online'. But it never did, largely because of the inability to get sound advice about what to do."

Neither of them had heard about UK Online for Business helpline - but they had heard of the tax breaks on IT capital expenditure in the first year of trading.

Read more on IT for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME)