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How to manage your Web and bricks-and-mortar businesses

On the surface, doing business on the Internet and in a bricks-and-mortar retail location would seem like the best of both worlds. If nothing else, no matter how your customers like to shop, a suitable option is available.

But sometimes that can prove a bumpy marriage. Rather than a complementary partnership, an Internet and bricks-and-mortar store can conflict -- to the detriment of your bottom line.

It doesn't have to be that way. Here are five potential issues that can crop up when you're selling in cyberspace and in a retail location, along with some suggestions that can help promote a proper balance.

1. You forget the people you're serving.
This can happen, for example, to a retail business that started on the Internet or, by the same token, begins in a physical location and later branches heavily into cyberspace. Simply put, a business can lose sight of its customer -- who they are, what they want and what they value. Because the Internet isn't the most intimate of mediums and speed can often take precedence over personal touch, this approach can carry over to your face-to-face dealings at your physical place of business. If you fell you're losing that touch from your Internet sales, use your bricks-and-mortar location to re-establish contact with your customers. Talk to your customers, and get to know their interests and priorities. You'll begin to reconnect with both the cyber and the flesh-and-bones variety of customers. "You want more contact with your customers so that you can get a sampling of the population you're serving." say Jennifer Varner of BellabluMaternity.com, a Cary N.C. maternity boutique, which started online but has since opened several stores. "It really serves as a reminder of your customer base."

2. The website shows one business, the sore another.
A customer sees a store's website and later decides to visit the business' physical location, only to find the store drastically differs from the image presented on the Web. That's confusing to the customer and it also hints that consistency and careful planning are afterthoughts for this business. Make sure that the operation shoppers see on your Web site is an accurate reflection of what they will experience in person. "I recently worked with a couple who have a gift store in Montana featuring the cowboy lifestyle. They told me that people love coming to their store for the decor and ambience, but the website was sterile and lacked the atmosphere [of the store]," says Santa Cruz, California, website consultant Phillippa Gamse. "If happy customers have been to the store and come back to the website as a result of some -mail promotion, they're likely to be very disappointed if it doesn't continue in their real-world experience and emotional connection."

3. Same item, different prices.
Nothing can be more maddening than seeing an item that's appealing, only to discover a different price than the one you expected to pay. That's an ongoing issue in the physical store / website relationship. Granted, there can always be cyberspace-only specials or you can promote items that are occasionally less expensive in the store than they are online. But for the most part, keep pricing consistent. "It's important to make your pricing as uniform as you can," says Rodney Spriggs, head of Vintage Stock, which sells new and vintage entertainment items and headquartered in Joplin, Mo. "It should be the same as thought you were offering the same items at the same price in two different stores."

4. One items, available everywhere.
Again, occasionally it can be effective to offer something in a Web-exclusive or store-only arrangement. (This can prove particularly effective if you're trying to build traffic in either venue.} But customers, as a rule, embrace consistency and predictability. "You can use Internet to drive traffic into stores, but if you offer it in the store, make sure it's available on the Internet as well," says Spriggs.

5. Let the Internet offer more than a buying option.
One final pitfall is having your website present itself merely as a site that allows people to shop. That's terrific and obviously the goal of many sites. But rather than just being a cyber-based mirror image of your physical store, make sure your website augments a shopper's experience. How do you do this? Remember to provide product information, comparison tools and other resources that a visitor can use to become better informed about your products. From there, encourage them to place and order or follow up on their interest to visit your physical store. "It's clear that people are researching products and services online before going to a physical store to make a purchase," says Gamse. "For example, I work with Harley-Davidson. One of their target markets is women, who can find it very empowering to go to the Web to inform themselves before the potentially-intimidating experience of going to the dealership."

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