Recipe for e-Success


3 Sep 2007

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There is no secret formula for a winning e-commerce business. The best Irish sites demonstrate that the core ingredient is surprisingly straightforward, giving the punters what they want.

“If you build it they will come,” was the e-business attitude of the dotcom era, says Alex French (pictured), director of finance and operations for WiFi provider Bitbuzz, and author of ‘Dot ie – a practical guide to using the internet in Ireland’.

“It’s simple; give people what they want,” says French.

Whether it is something unique, like Ryanair’s flights which cannot be booked elsewhere, or convenient, like the vast online shopping centre offered by Buy4Now.ie, it must provide something that the customer wants.

Vouchers and coupons may not seem like a profitable idea on first glance but pigsback.com, founded in 2000, is a runaway success due to its customised vouchers offering tailored discounts , says French.

French observes that consumers come for the product but stay when the site is user-friendly, like travel site, boo.com.

“The general rule it that it pays to spend time on your user interface.

“Look at issues like how many clicks it takes for a user to get through your site and how far they have to move the mouse, to get from one section to another.”

French says that boo.com is a great example of a site with both user-friendly navigation and original content in the form of user-generated content.

Potential holiday makers will trust the review of Boo.com’s members far quicker than an official source like a travel agents because both positive and negative reviews are published, he said.

Of course there are exceptions to the design rule. French notes that although ryanair.com has a fairly basic site it excels because it provides a unique service.

“Ryanair flights can’t be bought elsewhere so it doesn’t have a reason to spend time and money on a slick user interface.”

It may be assumed that certain sectors like music and travel fare better at online business but providing perishable goods can be lucrative if you get the delivery right.

“The unsung e-commerce heroes are Tesco.ie and Superquinn.ie. They get around the problem of selling fresh produce online by sourcing their goods from nearby stores and providing local delivery.

They’re providing people with a useful service by allowing people to shop online with a reasonably easy to use interface and allowing you to arrange delivery times.”

Looking at the profiteers of the dotcom era, e-commerce sites are useful indicators of how to turn profit. Shipping companies were expensive and delivery constituted a large part of the price.

Buy4Now provides a popular service by allowing customers to select delivery time and select delivery prices.

Niche sectors can do well in e-commerce because they often provide a product or service that is not available anywhere else.

Schoolbookexchange.ie acts as a portal for swapping and dealing in second-hand school textbooks. French says this is an ingenious idea because there is a constant churn of textbooks from year to year, and visiting here can save parents a great deal of money.

Niche websites, he concedes, are few and far between but there is a huge potential market for them, so it is a chicken and egg situation.

By Marie Boran