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Summer 2005 Website Savvy

For specialty retailers large and small, a Web presence is a must. Contrary to what some cart and kiosk retailers think, a website doesn’t compete with your mall location—it supports it. A website is the perfect “place” to display your product line. But even if you don’t use it to sell, a website is an opportunity to provide information to your customers. And a Web “presence” gives your business added credibility.

A website doesn’t have to be elaborate or even expensive to be effective. And you can expand it as you grow. In “Effective Small Business websites on a Budget” (, Kevin Nunley, PhD, a marketing and advertising consultant, says it’s no surprise that “retailers wonder how their websites will stand out from the jumble.” And they want their sites to look as good as (or better than) their competitors’. Good news: it isn’t that difficult, and it doesn’t have to be expensive.

Elements of style

But there are a bazillion retail websites out there. So how do you make yours stand out—without spending a fortune? Nunley offers advice on various aspects of building a simple, effective website.

Time vs. design
With increasingly faster downloads and sophisticated browsers, websites are getting fancier. Old advice you may have heard, such as putting a logo at the top of the webpage and using nothing but text, is outdated—and so is the look. And if a site is “copy-heavy”—too much text—visitors get annoyed and leave. (And you certainly don’t want them to leave unhappy!) But many visitors still use phone lines that are too slow for sprightly downloads, so again, they may get impatient and leave. Integrating the various design elements with that in mind will jazz up the look of your pages without making them slow.

Use one to three small gif or jpeg graphics on a page, and try to repeat graphics from one page to the next when you can. This is a time-saver for the visitor because once a graphic has loaded and is visible on the user’s screen, it doesn’t have to load again.

If you don’t yet have one, get one. One option is to use one of the online logo-design outfits that typically charge less than a graphic designer working one-on-one.

Basic colors and a white background do best. If your website is going to have several pages, you can have some fun with the design of your opening page—dramatic, jazzy, whatever. But the rest of your site should be simple and “clean.”

Type style
Use fonts that are easy to read—Times New Roman is classic and familiar, however it’s hard to read online. Stick to sans serif fonts for the main body of your text, such as Helvetica or Verdana, which are simple and contemporary. Create an interesting page by formatting your text. Use headlines and subheads, bold and/or italics for important words, and only two or three text colors. NEVER USE ALL CAPITALS, not even in headlines. (It’s actually harder to read and, worse, “feels” as if you’re yelling.)

Someone in a hurry should be able to read your headlines, subs and content so they can quickly understand the products, services and benefits they can get from you. To increase readability, be generous with line spacing; space out or indent blocks of type; and use bullet lists—set off important points with dots, arrows or other symbols.

Text vs. pictures
In the past, Nunley says, too many websites used too few words to explain their offers. “Some sites [were] all pictures with very little copy. It’s hard to figure out what the site is selling and why you should buy it.” Today, though, he says it looks as if “a lot of sites have gone [in] the other direction. In an effort to maximize sales, they put dense copy about all their offers on the opening page of their site.” And that’s overdoing it: “People click to the page and think, ‘Gee! I don’t have time to read all this.”

To solve that, trim your opening page down to the essentials. Rather than a batch of small graphics, focus on one large, powerful graphic that unifies the page. And use plenty of white space, the same advice you’ve always heard for print ads, brochures, etc.

Put parts of your page in a box with a different background from the rest of the page. A box makes information stand out.

Website frames split a page into two or three smaller pages. But they’ve always been controversial, according to Nunley. Early on, frames didn’t work on older browsers. And search engines (like Google and Yahoo) had a hard time reading pages with frames, which lowered the pages’ rank on the results list. Still, there are times when using frames can be a good choice. For example, if your site has lots of information, frames let your customers switch back and forth between pages quickly and easily.

In Web parlance, “sticky” means it keeps visitors glued to it: it’s easy and engaging enough to keep visitors there long enough to get the message. You want to make sure you aren’t doing anything with your web design that makes it “unsticky.” Your customers are pressed for time online just as the are when they come to your mall location. “If they can’t figure out your offer quickly, they may click elsewhere,” writes Nunley. All of the advice so far helps create stickiness, and you can add to it with various amusements. Visit a range of sites and see what does—or doesn’t—keep you glued.

By design

All in all, your site must be easy to navigate, says Nunley. The look and feel of your site should be consistent—the same logo, background, type style, etc., on every page. That kind of website is quick and easy to design, he says.

So are the websites that your domain registry or host offers. Companies like give you space for a one- or two-page website as part of the cost of your domain name, with several page templates and a variety of goodies—graphics, buttons, backgrounds, links and more—for you to design yourself. Some even let you plug in photos. And your site is your own, and the address is your domain name (not a long string with your name tacked on, as with AOL, Yahoo and others, considered unprofessional for a business). And best of all, it’s included in the cost of your registration.

Or you can hire a designer to create a design that looks right for your business and looks good to you. Hire someone either to do it all or just get you started—logo (if you don’t have one), layout, background, graphics, etc. Then you’ll build your pages with those elements. “This is an excellent way to get an eye-popping website,” says Nunley. Doing it this way, a designer will likely charge less than $200; for the entire design expect $500 and up, depending on variables like complexity of the site, and the designer’s experience and even locale.

You can find designers at all levels in the phone book, online, or by asking owners of sites you like. You can also check with local colleges for design students who freelance—they’re usually cheaper and can be quite good. But whether a student or a pro, ask for fees, references and samples of their work.

Finding you

Being “found” on search engines like Google and Yahoo is the number-one way of getting visitors to your site. That means you want webpages that search engines can “read” and find easily. They’re a lot smarter than they used to be, says Nunley. Most first look at the title of your page, then at the page’s “meta tags” (code symbols), and finally at the text. If the same keywords appear in all three places, your site lands within the first 10 to 15 sites the search engine lists.

Include your contact information—phone, fax, mailing address and, of course, your retail locations. You can also include hours of operation and other details. And an email “query box” makes it easy for visitors to email you with questions.

You can say (or sell!) what you want on your website, but keep the content simple and focused. Sarah Hoban, writing in Country Business magazine (“Winning Web Ways,” March 2005), says your webpages can fill in the additional info that your ad couldn’t cover or didn’t have room for, or that you don’t get a chance to mention in conversations with customers. (P.S. Once you’re up and running, update your content and contact info often.)

Whether you use your site to sell or just inform, promote it. Hoban advises putting your URL on your cash register, your store window and any other prominent spot at your location where customers will see it. Put it on your business cards, letterhead, bags, boxes and even tags. Make sure it’s on all of your ads, marketing materials, coupons—everything. Because if customers don’t know it exists, they’ll never see it. The next time you see a UPS truck, says Nunley, notice that their website is in the same big letters as its 800 phone number. Why? Because it works.

Linda Saracino

Saracino has been a freelance writer and editor for 18+ years.

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