April 1, 2005, 12:00 AM

From B2B to B2C

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Once manufacturers decide to sell direct to consumers, they need to recognize that their customers will expect the same level of purchase experience that they enjoy when shopping at retail sites. Useful content, navigation options, personalization, and streamlined checkout are just as important to manufacturers selling direct as they are to retailers.

Generating leads

Some manufacturers are selling direct and at the same time offering consumers the option to purchase from retail partners, with visibility to product availability and prices. The manufacturer`s own price--usually the MSRP--may be displayed as well in the comparison, all the more reason to offer exceptional customer service, support and environments online to overcome price differentials with discount retailers.

A few manufacturers are beginning to leverage their consumer-oriented sites to sell wholesale to small and mid-sized retailers. Since these smaller operations usually receive only a catalog and fax order form once a year, the manufacturer`s consumer web site, with some extra fulfillment and payment features, can open tremendous opportunities for additional business orders every day.

Another area where manufacturers can have a leg up on retailers is the ownership experience. After the sale (whether direct or through retail partners), a manufacturer`s web site should encourage continued contact from the customer for service and owner resources. This ongoing relationship can increase satisfaction and stimulate interest in other products.

After their purchases, customers regularly return to the manufacturer`s site to obtain an owners manual, browse through accessories or even validate their original choice. This return flow can become a current of ongoing contact with customers. The site should allow the visitor to opt-in for an online newsletter or other communications from the manufacturer, gaining their permission to market to them. Capturing the consumer`s e-mail address and opt-in permission allows the manufacturer to compile a list of pre-qualified prospects who have demonstrated their interest and confidence in the brand.

The site also can be used effectively for product registration. During the registration, visitors can be exposed to the opt-in features, the content of the newsletter or testimonials from other opt-in customers. Rebates are an effective way of encouraging consumers to visit the manufacturer`s site and register their products. Manufacturers should also offer customers the chance to buy an extended warranty, return products for repair, or schedule repairs with a local technician. All these points of contact are opportunities to market, inform and up-sell.

The right people

The development of a useful, content-rich and compelling site can enhance the manufacturer`s brand and sales dramatically. It`s important, however, that manufacturers adopt one final practice from retailers: they must dedicate personnel to manage the consumer experience on the site and to decide how the online store is designed, the features that will be offered and the overall depth and convenience the site will offer. Most retailers would never (at least, any more) consider turning over management of their online channel to their information technology departments, yet many manufacturers do. Individuals with marketing and merchandising expertise should guide the site`s look, feel and content.

Manufacturers make the retail experience possible, but a retail orientation can make possible new sources of customer satisfaction and revenue for smart manufacturers who are adept at providing a superb online experience.

Andrew Krasner is director of strategic services at Fry Inc., an e-commerce design, development and managed services provider. He can be reached at akrasner@fry.com.

A manufacturers` web site to-do list

  • Provide in-depth product information, comparisons, search and navigation options, promotions and a compelling call to action.
  • Recognize channel conflict, but don`t let it block all direct sales opportunities.
  • Foster the relationship after the sale with product registration, rebates, owner`s resources, services, newsletters and content for enthusiasts.
  • Make sure the right people are responsible for the user experience.

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