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O.C. BUSINESS PLUS

Firm Hopes to Be Big Wheel in Shopping Carts

Internet: WebCreators faces heavy competition in selling secure e-commerce services to online merchants.

July 28, 1999|MARC BALLON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Scott Finn speaks to the woman in soothing, reassuring tones, taking the hard out of the sell.

He patiently explains over the phone that an electronic commerce shopping cart could boost sales of the dog leashes and collars she sells online and make her the canine queen of the Web. An e-commerce cart, he tells her, looks like a shopping cart and acts like a shopping cart but provides a secure method for making purchases on the Web.

"When you have a shopping cart, people make impulse purchases, which helps you out," said Finn, a salesman with WebCreators Internet Services Inc. in Newport Beach, which installs online shopping carts and runs them for merchants for $468 per year.

Finn didn't make a sale that day, but he figured he'd close the deal with another call or two. The woman needed what he was selling, and he knew it.

In an adjacent room, the boom-boom-boom of hip-hop music pounds as a group of mostly twentysomethings surf the Web for sites lacking a secure checkout function. They find plenty of them. Whenever they do, they fire off an e-mail to the merchant, describing how WebCreators can help their online business.

The jeans-and-T-shirt brigade also takes down merchants' phone numbers, which they pass on to Finn and other WebCreators employees for follow-up calls.

WebCreators has entered a hot field, said Paul Hagen, an analyst at Forrester Research, an Internet marketing and research firm in Cambridge, Mass.

Of the estimated half-million merchants online, nearly 20% have the ability to process online transactions securely, he said. Demand for e-commerce shopping carts is growing at a rate of 500% per year, and sales could top the $2-billion mark by the end of next year, Hagen said.

Demand is highest among the small and medium-sized businesses targeted by WebCreators, which is trying to make its mark amid the hundreds of companies that provide similar services, from small Internet service providers to heavyweights such as Yahoo Inc. and IBM Corp.

WebCreators is selling 200 shopping carts per month, founder David Van der Veer said, up from 100 in May. He hopes to reach 400 by the end of the summer.

"They contacted us just as we were looking for a shopping cart," said Scott Wesley, co-founder of LLL Reptile and Supply in Oceanside, which has both a brick-and-mortar and online store. "I liked their personal approach."

Online sales at LLL Reptile have jumped 20% since the company installed the secure shopping cart in March, Wesley said. Before that, most online customers called in orders, a more time-consuming and less convenient process, he said.

When a web page is secure, an icon--generally a closed lock--appears at the bottom of the page. The lock is open when the page is not secure.

WebCreators personal approach may give the company and marketers like it an advantage over the IBMs of the world, said Jay Conrad Levinson, author of "The Guerrilla Marketing" series of books. Although WebCreators and its brethren lack the multimillion-dollar marketing budgets to advertise in glossy computer magazines or on television, they offer consumers something the big guys cannot: attention.

"The major companies don't have the time or inclination to go after customers one at a time. They have to go after the masses," Levinson said. "By contrast, WebCreators can build a one-to-one relationship and treat people as individuals. Marketing, like sex, should be a step-by-step process and shouldn't be hurried."

Of course, WebCreators would go after major, deep-pocketed corporate clients if it could. But the company's offerings are too limited to meet their needs. That has led WebCreators to target the little guys.

The company, a small start-up in Orange County, remains below the radar screen of most industry watchers. Still, analysts give WebCreators kudos for the laser-like focus of its marketing efforts.

Shelley Taylor, president of Shelley Taylor & Associates, an Internet consulting and market research firm in Palo Alto, said a customer-acquisition strategy such as WebCreators makes sense, in theory at least.

"I appreciate it when somebody identifies something I'm having a problem with and helps me solve that problem," she said. "That's a proactive marketing approach, which is absolutely critical in this competitive environment."

WebCreators appears to have come up with an inexpensive and effective way to prospect for leads, said Ken Smith, former director of electronic commerce strategy at Mainspring, an Internet consulting and research firm in Boston. "They are leveraging the Internet in a smart way to reduce the legwork that goes into finding new customers," Smith said.

Some experts, however, question the long-term effectiveness of such a strategy. Barry Parr, director of Internet and e-commerce strategies at IDC, said sending out unsolicited e-mails to businesses borders on junk e-mail and could antagonize potential customers.

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