E-commerce for SME small business

by Colin Bryant, TelecomsAdvice

E-commerce has entered the psyche of most businesspeople now, largely off the back of the dotcom revolution that has captured so much media attention during the past couple of years. But given how quickly we are told the Internet is growing, e-commerce has been surprisingly slow to take off in the UK.

There are a number of reasons for this, most of which are based around people's emotional behaviour. The whole concept of e-commerce requires a complete change of mindset for a start. We are all used to going into a shop and buying what we want, or calling a number from an advertisement and ordering goods and services over the phone. Mail order is another popular option, although it is still something many people have yet to try, preferring face-to-face contact as part of their buying decision.

Then we have "technofear". Unless you use a computer at work or at home, the thought of buying anything over the Internet is simply not an option, and there are other concerns to address such as the perceived lack of security over transmitting credit card details over the Web. And of course for those who are becoming more familiar with the Internet, there is the dawning realisation that there is so much choice out there, where do you start?

Why e-commerce?

The Internet has become a whole new sales channel, but what is important is how it is used to create and open up new revenue streams. E-commerce is transforming key business processes and potentially re-engineering industries and sales chains - even creating new ones. Some companies are traditionally good at grasping change in this way, while others have been forced to in order to survive.

Federal Express has simplified the tracking of parcels and improved the delivery of customer service by putting the whole process on-line. "What Car" magazine's website has enabled the publisher to expand its whole business into people's homes via the Internet, bringing a whole new car buying experience to consumers with value added services such as the ability to work out loan repayments and details of insurance deals.

But you don't have to be a multi-million pound concern to warrant implementing an e-commerce strategy. Small retailers, building and plumbing firms, independent travel agents, professional services companies, manufacturers can all use the Internet to reach a wider customer audience, open up new markets and revenue opportunities and to help them keep in step with their larger competitors. The opportunities are not reserved exclusively for business to consumer sales; indeed it is in the business-to-business sector that City analysts see the most growth potential.

As consumers become "wired", so they become more comfortable with Web-based technologies and will feel happy buying goods and services via their PC, interactive digital television at home, a multimedia kiosk in the high street, or even from their Internet-enabled mobile phone. This whole area is growing exponentially and presents a real challenge to the small business market. There is a marked shift in power back to the consumer as they seek choice, flexibility and confidence in the brand they are buying. E-commerce represents a massive opportunity that small businesses can ill afford to sweep under the carpet. They risk losing business to their competitors without it.

E-commerce for small businesses

For large companies, e-commerce is somewhere near the top of the "to do list" for this year, but at the other end of the scale it is a different picture. According to research commissioned by Telewest Business Communications around half of the UK's small to medium sized companies have yet to grasp the importance of e-commerce - indeed they find it all a mystery. But three-quarters of small companies already use a computer for business, so it is clearly an education gap rather than a technological one.

The government has introduced tax breaks for small companies investing in IT, which should be a welcome boost.

Telewest's e-commerce service dedicated for the small to medium sized enterprise provides a package of tools and services designed to help businesses understand the Internet, get connected and advertise on the Web, so they can build their confidence in readiness for trading online.

Many of the core elements of Telewest’s business services are inclusive, including Internet subscription, e-mail accounts and access to a secure portal or gateway through which users can enter a whole virtual world dedicated to the smaller business. There are also more advanced tools and consultancy services which customers can pay for and use to get more out of their site and really begin to create an on-line presence. The modular structure allows companies to step on at whatever level they feel most comfortable according to their on-line experience and know-how, without running up huge costs.

Reviewed January 2011

last updated : 21/01/2011

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