E-Commerce: A Golden Opportunity

corp_ecommerceIt would be nice to say that, with the click of a mouse button, the World Wide Web has provided optical suppliers and professionals with thousands of dollars of additional income and hundreds of new customers. That it has revolutionized the entire industry and server-ed up, so to speak, a totally new way of doing business. That those without Web sites will be left behind in a cloud of cyberdust, plodding along with their outdated fax machines, 800 numbers, and — gasp! —regular mail requests for orders. These things haven’t come to pass…at least not yet.

So, Where’s the Bandwagon?

Although many companies have a presence on the Web, few offer direct online ordering. “People in the optical industry are slow to embrace new technology,” states Dale Ennis, manager of education and training at Titmus Optical of Petersburg, Virginia (www.titmus.com), maker of safety and other specialty frames. “It’s almost too easy to send electronic orders, and there’s still the fear of something new. Folks live and die by their fax machines, although they feel compelled to call up and ask whether the company received the fax.” Most e-mail ordering systems are set up so the customer gets an automatic acknowledgment of his or her request.

When he put up his Web page about a year ago, “it was criticized as being too commercial and unprofessional, and that it somehow it cheapened the product” recalls Dr. Michael Cypress (www.eye-contacts.com), an optometrist with offices in Pleasanton and Walnut Creek, California. But he was merely ahead of the game: “Because it’s less expensive for my patients to order contact lense refills over the Web, I’m able to pass along savings to them. Thanks to technology, our prices are lower” than many local competitors.

There’s a myth — largely urban — that once you give your credit card number over the Internet, you can easily be ripped off. According to Jan Ennis, CEO of Ennco Display (www.ennco.com), a Redmond, Washington company which designs, builds, and installs optical displays, “people provide credit card information to 800 number operators all the time and don’t think twice about it,” not to mention sending in forms with little consideration to the possibility of mail fraud. “There’s been a lot of press about [online thievery], but nothing has actually happened.”

Western Optical Supply of Santa Fe, N.M. (www.westernoptical.com), one of the largest equipment manufacturers and suppliers in the U.S., has had online ordering for almost a year. Along with helping increase sales, president Joshua Freilich sees it as a quicker and more efficient way of moving their products . Unlike faxes or conventional order forms, online ordering greatly reduces the chance of typographical errors from keyboarding, because the data goes directly into the system. He adds, “because they know us, our customers are comfortable providing their credit card numbers” over the Internet. Along with “a good reputation, we have our own server which is a standalone system.” It provides what’s known in Internet lingo as a secure or encrypted line so hackers and others cannot gain access to consumer information.

Strengthening the Strands

This brave new Web has supplemented businesses willing to put up even informational sites. With about 325 frame styles to describe and picture, Kenmark Optical (www.kenmarkopt.com) of Louisville, Kentucky would have been responsible for the loss of many trees — not to mention the expense of printing and mailing a detailed catalogue — without their Web site. “Sales reps can view the product quickly, at their leisure,” comments Dale Parris, director of management information systems at Kenmark. Unlike a printed advertisement which has a limited shelf life, “our site is out there all the time; customers can also find out about the company history, the facilities, and the schedule of shows where we’ll be exhibiting.” Rather than waiting for a brochure, interested parties can gain immediate access to the material, along with the name and number of a local distributor if applicable. The site can be updated regularly, keeping visitors abreast of new developments and products.

Freilich of Western likes the flexibility inherent in posting your own electronic billboard.

“Our Web page is designed so customers can e-mail us with questions from no matter where they’re at on the site. Often you learn more about your customer when you communicate electronically.” There’s a give-and-take not normally found in a fax transmission or letter, along with the added bonus of savings on stamps and phone bills. E-mail can be particularly helpful “if you’re dealing with someone from a foreign country and there’s a language barrier.” He cited the reinstatement of a plier that hadn’t been used in over 20 years, based on a question from an Argentine client. “The exchange of ideas can be more important than the actual commerce.”

Companies can also get a sense of who’s visited their site by studying records of existing “hits;” that is, e-mail addresses of people who’ve clicked through. “I can generally tell whether it’s a casual browser, a potential client, or even a competitor,” explains Wes Traynor, President of Optivision (www.optivisioninc.com), a Phoenix, Arizona-based software company that supplies laboratory management systems. This helps figure out where customers are coming from; businesses can target marketing efforts accordingly.

And in fact, the Web has opened up the world to many optical enterprises. “Although our site hasn’t directly increased domestic sales, it has enhanced overseas purchases, particularly in South America, where accounts contact us completely through e-mail,” notes Chuck Field, co-owner of Multi-Facets Lab of Corona, California (www.multifacets.com), maker of specialty lenses. Time and cultural differences evaporate because the Web can be accessed 24-7 from anywhere in the globe.

In fact, some companies have become accustomed to receiving e-mail inquiries at certain times of the day due based on a country’s time zone. “People can order something at 2 a.m. and expect a reply the next morning,” remarks Sue Decot, president/owner of Decot Hy-Wyd (www.sportglasses.com) of Phoenix, Arizona, producer of sports eyewear. “The convenience is just incredible.” Gone is the Monday morning wait to make that phone call to order items or access the office fax machine. Anyone with a computer and modem can do business, as long as there’s an electric outlet and phone jack.

The Future Is Now

The last couple of years have seen an explosion of Web sites, which are multiplying like, well, a nest of spiders. Along with online ordering, many companies are considering adding sound and animation for a “movie-like” effect. Visitors with sophisticated browsers are already treated to “Margaritaville” when they enter the Ennco Display site. Online discussion groups and informational newsletters; and sophisticated tracking systems where customers can check on existing orders and get a history of products purchased are some other innovations. But before you rush out and hire a Web designer or buy a do-it-yourself kit (see sidebar), consider that not only do competitors know what you’re up to but unless the site is monitored constantly, you can lose credibility. “Customers demand even more speed in answering their requests,” comments Max Meloni of Sunglasses International (www.sunglasses-int.com) a firm based in London that provides European designer frames. “They expect to receive the product or information immediately and this is not always possible,” especially when you’re juggling orders from many different sources.

And there’s little danger of losing the personal touch. “We pride ourselves on close contact with customers,” remarks Decot of Hy-Wyd. “The phones are constantly ringing and we still spend many hours helping people find the product that’s right for them.”

But who wants to be the last kid on the block without a bicycle? “I don’t think sales will be going through the roof because of the Web,” admits Dale Ennis of Titmus. “But it’s better to have a site sooner than later. It’s kind of like insurance — you might hate paying for it, but when you need it, you’re glad you’ve got it.” It’s an added customer service, and besides, how else could you justify the strains of Jimmy Buffet coming from your office?

Website 101

Most companies have the same attitude towards creating an Internet presence as consumers do about plumbing — they opt for professionals. But Ante Logarusic, marketing communications specialist with Volk Optical (www.volk.com) a Mentor, Ohio manufacturer of diagnostic and therapeutic lenses, took the plunge himself and, with no prior experience, used Microsoft Frontpage (about $140) set up his company’s site. “The software made it easy,” he says. “Everything’s set up in a logical, clean form” eliminating the need for learning code and other technical requirements. He estimates it took him about two weeks to design the page and two days to set it up.

“I didn’t put a lot of bells and whistles into the site,” he continues. “It wasn’t really necessary. These doctors are no-nonsense guys and just want the information quickly.” Other popular products include Allaire Homesite (about $80); Claris Homepage (about $100); Macrmedia Dreamweaver ($300-400, depending upon the version); and Corel Webmaster (about $190). Those looking for these or something fancier can visit Microcenter (www.microcenter.com) or CompUSA (www.compusa.com) either in person or (of course) on the Web.