April 1, 2009, 12:00 AM

The key to free

(Page 3 of 3)

Tight budgets force retailers to innovate, and frugality is a watchword at evo, Decker says. But there are times when it just makes sense to pay for a service, he adds. Especially when it’s critical to business functions.

“With free services, you are sort of on your own to customize it to your needs,” he says. “There’s not an 800 number to call with a friendly voice on the other end to walk you through X, Y and Z.”

Reliability also can be an issue. As it is with the Skype phone service that Best Kiteboarding uses. “Skype is a huge, huge savings. But its stability is about 98%,” he says. “We maybe have one dropped call every two weeks.”

For retailers taking a massive amount of phone calls, 2% downtime could add up to a significant loss. Wilder says retailers need to analyze the risks and benefits of each system. “I still am a believer in you get what you pay for,” Wilder says. “If your company doesn’t have that geeky intern or team, it might be worth it to pay.”

Evo, for example, tried a free open source telephone system to manage its incoming calls and had such a difficult time it upgraded to a paid version.

“Calls would drop, the system would turn off randomly, and the sound quality was poor,” Decker says. “Plus the management and maintenance time it required of our staff was unreasonable.”

Beyond evaluating quality of a free service, retailers also have to weigh the time it takes to teach-or coax-staff to use the new tools. Lawson says some of his employees were uncomfortable using headsets while speaking on the phone. “Teaching people how to adjust to using these new tools, especially people who have been in the industry awhile, can be tough,” Lawson says. “Some didn’t like that they couldn’t just pick up a phone.”

E-retailers must decide for themselves which free or low-cost tools make sense for their business based on their industry, staff and budget. Indeed, such services likely will require staff training or doing without on-call help or customization, but the cost savings just might be worth the sacrifice. While there may be no such thing as a free lunch, in today’s economy, more merchants are gladly opting for the value meal.


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