E-Commerce for Small Business

Introduction

The ubiquitous development of technology and computers have changed the way people live, work, play, and interact. The profile of business has changed dramatically throughout the years. Technological advancements dominate the shift in business strategies of many firms and made traditional business models obsolete. Upheavals wrought by these developments have forced many corporations to restructure and seek new directions. Financial markets are not spared from the upheaval. World capital markets throughout the globe are now interlinked via satellite, networks, and technology. Globalization has linked formerly independent economies. When a cataclysm occurs within a globally linked financial system, the entire global market feels the ripples of the event. Businesses are no longer isolated entities that operate autonomously.

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People can live and work in virtual reality. It is no longer important that one be physically present in a given work area. Because of computers and connectivity, people can choose to work where they like, when they like and how they like to do their job. With the click of a mouse, an ordinary worker can communicate with his counterpart elsewhere in the globe to discuss work and exchange ideas.

Technological advancement and the introduction of computer-driven technologies in the business landscape have influenced how business is managed today. Computer-driven technologies are making it possible to turn out small runs of increasingly customized goods aimed at niche markets. Smart companies are moving from the production of long runs of commodity products to short runs of “higher value-added” products (Toffler 52).

The new business ecosystem morphed traditional marketing strategies to fit the new business paradigm. Whether these strategies fit in the new order or not is the concern of this discourse. The relevance of the new business ecosystem to small businesses is explored using primary and secondary sources. A review of related literature will shed light on other academic opinions. Finally, a model is proposed on how small businesses could benefit from the virtual business model.

The topic selected was intended to support the expansion plans of a business engaged in distributing nutritional supplements. The company is small-scale and the author recognizes the potential of e-commerce for small businesses. To level the playing field among companies offering the same type of services, the author would like to explore the possibility of becoming more competitive and at the same time providing convenience and accessibility to its clients.

The New Business Ecosystem

Business environments are changing rapidly because of several factors. These changes make it difficult for companies to meet the challenge while using traditional business models. Barabba (34-59) attributes these three phenomena as factors of change:

  1. “Customer needs are changing rapidly and are difficult to predict”;
  2. “Communications technologies improve and enable businesses to acquire deep and broad external knowledge of markets, allowing them “to better sense changes in customer requirements. These technologies will also allow companies “to innovatively serve those markets.” and
  3. “Technology is redefining the nature of competition”.

Murphy (1998) describes a new business model or paradigm that he calls alternatively an “internetworked (virtual) enterprise” or “extended enterprise.” These new enterprises “encompass channel partners, remote workers, suppliers, distributors, and consumers through a secure Web-based global network.” (Äijö & Saarinen) Internet provided the infrastructure and allowed companies to operate with the digital environment in a decentralized manner. “The new business paradigm created by three new classes of the business model – extranets, enterprise portals, and digital marketplaces” (Äijö & Saarinen).

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Alternative Approaches to Virtual Business Protocol

Companies can position themselves on the Web in various forms. The purpose of each varies. At a corporate level, alternatives for the Web is categorized in the order of increasing commitment as follows:

  • Information only;
  • Interactive communications tool;
  • Channel to market (e-Commerce);
  • Separate online business;
  • Integration with traditional business strategy;
  • Transformation of traditional business to the Web (Dennis & Harris 98).

Structurally, a website can be classified as:

  • ‘Bricks and mortar’ – traditional business model; the Web site is brochureware only;
  • ‘Clicks and mortar’ – the company pursues online and offline marketing and transactions;
  • ‘Clicks only’ – the entire business model is online, with little or no physical presence (such companies are also known as ‘dotcoms’ or ‘pureplays’ (98-99).

Some of the major trends associated with recent developments in e-business include web-based platforms, content, search engines and database management, integration, and security. When the dot.com bubble bursts in the late ’90s, e-business practitioners became more cautious and vigilant regarding their business practices. Competition in cyberspace also tightened with more businesses joining the bandwagon.

In the web-based platforms, e-business server applications were introduced. Application vendors like IBM, BEA, Sun, ATG, and others focused on “core set of infrastructure services like session management, transaction management, user management, security, logging, auditing, scalability solutions and ways of encapsulating business services.”(MindTree Consulting) Efficient management of content and web-based data is imperative in successful e-business ventures. Various vendors offered e-business enterprises solutions to manage their databases that are frequently accessed internally and externally. Vendors like Interwoven, Vignette, Microsoft, and IBM offered to organize and manage information including the processes involved in making information available and defined specific roles to enable e-businesses to access data from different channels.

Since many e-businesses are modeled after the ‘click and mortar’ structure, integration of online and offline activities is important to make e-businesses work. Finally, most e-businesses had increased the security level of transactions online. Infrastructures were established so payments made online would be secure. Privacy has become a prominent issue in e-business. With the introduction of “smartcards, authentication devices and real-time fraud detection using sophisticated bank systems, security levels at online transactions increased. Alternative online payment like SSL and Paypal offered secure payment systems.” (Bwired).

Companies wishing to gain a significant advantage over competitors should consider re-evaluating their business modeling. Companies aiming to reach a wider customer base may consider any of the e-business models and incorporate them in the strategic planning of the firm. Firms that experience reduced financial gains and losing hold over most of their customers can attribute the weaknesses to changing business environment. Most firms that are veterans in their respective fields find unprecedented competition from young upstarts. Most of these young firms have included some pertinent e-business models into their strategies to wrestle the market away from the pioneering firms.

Previously, companies are focused solely on the product and service aspects of the business. Today, the new business model integrates “business, technology, and cultural transformation. The business is enabled with the network and the various technologies attached to that network. Without the network in operations, the organization will not function.” (Guerrero) In the current business structure of small firms, it is apparent that they need to improve their connectivity and marketing strategies to generate more revenues, as well as look towards future expansion. In the current business ecology, using outmoded contracting strategies and services might not conform with the changes in the business environment attributed to information technology developments. The benefits of utilizing the Internet to generate more business are discussed in the next section.

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Important Internet Protocols

Domain Names

Mueller in Trademarks and Domain Names: Property Rights and Institutional Evolution in Cyberspace defined a domain name as “a hierarchically structured character string that serves as an Internet address.” (52) Internet users often used keywords or names that are easy to remember as their identity. It is also incorporated into the character string of the web address. The convention of a web address usually begins with the world wide web (www) followed by a dot, a noun, a dot again, then an extension name (i.e. www.name.com). The domain name is usually embedded in the URLs to identify the organization. The extension is also known as the top-level domain (TDL). Essentially, the TDL’s classify or identifies what type of organization owns the URL. Some familiar examples are.com (to represent commercial companies operating in the United States),.gov (a designation for governments),.edu (for schools or educational institutions),.org (for non-profit organizations),.net (used by organizations with intranet infrastructure and not to be viewed by the public) &.mil (used by the military) (Friedman 44-45).

In 1983, Paul Mockapetris of the Southern California Information Services Institute designed the Domain Name System (DNS) (Franda 47). It was intended to regulate the different domain names used on the web. A specific name is assigned for every machine connected to the web. When a particular message is sent to a specific domain name, it is routed to the DNS server of the Internet Service Provider (ISP) (Franda 47). The regulation of the root server and the system of allocating domain names allow for the collection of fees and taxes, regulating behavior or the information collection, and enforcement of intellectual property rights and laws (Franda 48).

Domain name and address administration was initially moderated and managed by the Southern California Information Services Institute. In 1994, the National Science Foundation engaged the services of Network Solutions (NSI) to handle domain name registration including the management of TDL’s (Franda 48). The company would later relinquish the responsibilities for handling the management of TDL’s in exchange for the government approval allowing the company to collect fees in domain registrations (Franda 48-49). Knowing the domain names allows Internet users to go directly to their desired web address. With the introduction of multilingual domain names, they broadened the scope of the Internet (Franda 46).

Domain Parking

Domain parking is a strategy “used primarily by domain name registrars and internet advertising publishers to monetize type-in traffic visiting an under-developed domain name.” (“Domain Parking”) Domain parking is also used by companies to route queries to other company-owned websites to decongest incoming messages or queries. Domain parking is a relatively easy procedure corollary to domain name registration. TheLazydomainer.com in What is domain parking? How will it help me? provided the following parking techniques: 1) register the domain name; 2) direct the domain name to a parking company; and 3) design the website to accommodate advertisements. When the ads displayed on the websites were clicked, it also automatically generates the owner of the website some money. The pay-per-click (PPC) strategy of advertisers pays the websites that host their product. They pay for every click from online customers. Advertisers usually bid on keywords they think the Internet user will frequently associate them with the products. When an Internet user keys in the keywords, it automatically brings him/her to a page that has contents referred to in the keyword search.

The click-through rate (CTR) measures the success rate of the advertisement placed on the web. To compute for the CTR, the number of times the ad was clicked was divided by the number of times the ad was delivered. The keyword ranking system makes it easier for customers to access websites that they have keyed in. The keywords typed were the closest description of the company website. The more optimized the usage of the keyword, the easier for clients to gain automatic access. (“Keyword Ranking and Analysis”)

Domain parking also offers the owner of domain names by securing it for future use. The web host will register the domain name with InterNIC then “parks” it for the client’s future use. This way, the web host ensures that the domain name is reserved and no other user can register with the same domain name (“DNS Parking”).

Comparing B2B to B2C

B2B (Business to Business) and B2C (Business to Consumers) are two subsets of e-commerce that address the issues of change in the business environment. These e-business models have characteristics that defined their function in business. However, both e-business models aim to improve the performance of companies. They also differ in marketing strategies and customer characteristics.

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Definitions

The difference between B2B from B2C is in the way they conduct their business. B2B (business to business) refers to the selling of goods and services to other businesses within the supply chain. The customers are not individuals but entities or businesses. B2B has fewer customers but the value of their products is higher when compared to B2C. On the other hand, B2C (business to consumers) is a derivative of direct selling principles. B2C sells its products directly to consumers. B2C has more customers but their earnings are lesser compared to B2B. Figure 1 illustrates the relationship of B2B and B2C to customers.

Relationship of B2B and B2C to Customers
Figure 1 – Relationship of B2B and B2C to Customers (Dennis & Harris 20)

Marketing Strategies

The marketing strategies between B2B and B2C differ in several ways. In the account acquisition phase, B2B needs to establish a relationship with its customers before it sells anything. Typically, they sell their product with the physical presence of their representatives. In B2C, they use intensive promotional activities like advertisements on the web to announce that they are selling something. They do not have any prior knowledge about their customers. They will only be able to attain appropriate information if a sale is completed. Compared to B2Bs, B2Cs spend more on advertising. B2Bs have more focus when targeting customers. The users of their products are often former clients and they would rather concentrate on firming up relationships with them than creating new markets.

Channel distribution is more complex for B2B’s. They connect to their customers through their channel partners (Dennis & Harris 119). As part of their marketing strategy, B2B needs to train their customers to use their products. B2B’s needed to maintain post-sales customer support because their products required continuous monitoring and relationship with their customers. In B2C’s, the transaction ends when the customer purchases the product. B2C’s can conduct their business on the web while B2B’s may require a more personal approach to sell their products.

B2C’s have more difficulty in delivering their products to their customers. They lack “a distribution system that is reliable and economically efficient” (Budd & Clear 19). Before becoming B2B’s, the parent company already has a delivery system in place. The delivery requirements of B2B’s are often in tranches depending on customer demand.

Technology Research Findings

Dembla, Palvia & Krishnan in Understanding the Adoption of Web-Enabled Transaction Processing by Small Businesses found it important for small businesses to consider the benefits of e-commerce. Like large conglomerates, small businesses could derive some lessons on transitioning into e-commerce. The authors suggested that small businesses evaluate their organizational structures and assume a proactive attitude towards the adoption of web-based transactions. Small businesses could also minimize costs as well as increase customer base when they integrate e-commerce into their overall business strategy. It is also imperative for small businesses to make investments in information technology and expand their knowledge about adopting the business into the new business paradigm (11).

Taylor & Murphy’s article, SME’s and E-business explored the issues and barriers that some small enterprises adopting e-commerce encountered. SME’s usually engage web-enabled technologies through establishing links to the Internet; the use of brochure Web pages; establishing transaction-capable websites, and integrating their business and organization to the Websites and back-office computing (281). The authors cited some barriers to entry into e-commerce experienced by small businesses. They include incompatibility of the product to the technology; some businesses occupied a specific niche that does not require the global scope offered by the Internet; some issues about privacy, payment schemes, and security remained a priority for some firms hesitant to venture into e-commerce; some firms lack the necessary skills to implement IT-driven solutions, and costs were also an issue for some small business players (285-286).

Fillis & Wagner discussed in E-business Development: An Exploratory Investigation of the Small Firm some of the benefits of adopting small business into e-commerce. The benefits include “improved communications, cost savings, greater visibility, ability to develop new markets and greater levels of information retrieval.”(625) The authors likewise discussed the barriers associated with e-commerce. They include issues like privacy, security, and inadequate technical knowledge (625). To mitigate the barriers, the authors suggested that, “[c] competitive advantage is secured through the exploitation of superior skills and resources and in the small firm; creative use of limited resources is needed.” (625) Other entrepreneurship skills that need development in small businesses include how individual orientation and motivations shaped the direction of the business strategy. In addition, marketing competencies had been found central to e-business development including “vision, the development of trust within personal contact networks and technical ability and control.” (625)

In the new business paradigm involving the extensive use of the Internet as part of a company’s business strategies, Jennifer Rowley in Remodelling Marketing Communications in an Internet Environment noted the differences of marketing communications in e-business from that of traditional routers. In e-communications, the nature of marketing communications encompasses a broader, global audience viewed the promotions. The nature of the potential customers is undifferentiated. Due to platforms used in Internet protocols, the promotion strategies could be limited to text-based messages instead of broadcasts as compared to traditional channels (203).

In e-business, the author suggested that marketing strategies should be reinvented to accommodate the characteristics of an Internet-based marketing approach. On the aspect of promotional objectives, the author outlined the following objectives so that promotional activities on the Web is more effective:

  • to increase sales;
  • to maintain or improve market share;
  • to create a favorable climate for future sales;
  • to inform and educate the market;
  • to create a competitive advantage, relative to competitor’s products or market position;
  • to improve promotional efficiency (206).

In the aspect of identifying the characteristics of web visitors, the author cited Lewis & Lewis’ (1997) criteria: Web visitors are typical:

  • directed information seekers;
  • undirected information seekers (browsers);
  • bargain hunters (browsers of a type);
  • entertainment seekers;
  • directed buyers (directed searchers with a buying intent) (208).

These are some of the elements that small business owners need to consider when launching marketing strategies on the web. While the Internet reaches a wider audience, there are elements of uncertainty when it comes to identifying and knowing specific buyer needs and preferences. Hence, Rowley suggested that developing integrated strategies in marketing communications and business communication are important for the effective use of the Internet as a promotional medium. The Web presence of a business is more effective for:

  • creating a brand, product, and corporate awareness and image;
  • providing product and other information;
  • generating qualified leads;
  • handling customer complaints, queries, and suggestion;
  • allowing customers access to the intranet (206).

The author’s exploration of the possibilities that the Internet offers to market communications is relevant to the present discussion because the changing landscape of business transactions also affects the method of marketing strategies a company can employ to generate more business. These changes have a significant impact on the business strategy of the company.

An E-Business Model for SME’s

The current business in consideration has a physical distribution site for its nutrition supplements. The company decided to explore more business opportunities on the web. The company has a few basic computer-based infrastructures that support its operations. The owner uses information technology to supplement its accounting and database management. However, introducing e-commerce protocols may not be compatible with the existing system. Despite that, the company still wishes to pursue its plan of having a virtual face. The proposed solution is to allow the company to have a virtual face, improving the operations and business of the company while maintaining its operational integrity.

The Virtual Face Model

The company may consider becoming more an independent player on the web. The only requisite is the company should have made adjustments to its present IT infrastructure to accommodate e-commerce. The virtual face model is illustrated in figure 2.

Virtual Face E-Commerce Model
Figure 2 – Virtual Face E-Commerce Model

Requisites to Fulfill the Virtual Face Model

Web Design

The company would have to purchase web design software Dreamweaver by Macromedia. The images to be included should be under 12kb to allow users to load them easily. Photographs must be in.jpeg format while graphics are in.gif format. The website should include product front-liners that the company wishes to market, some advertisements sponsored by their respective manufacturer, and special offers and discounts that will attract potential customers. The services offered must also be highlighted.

Infrastructure

The least expensive option is to lease a web server space from a hosting company. It costs around $20 to $50 per month. If the company can afford it, they can host their website. This would require the following:

  1. Specially equipped PC or specialized server appliances and server software to manage the website and retrieve pages as users request them. It should have ample disk space, high memory capacity, and processing capacity to accommodate anticipated site traffic.
  2. Operating platforms can either be Windows or Linux.
  3. Web server programs like Microsoft Web Server for windows platform and Apache for Unix and Linux platforms.
  4. Reliable Internet connection.

Web Portal

Yahoo! is selected as the primary portal because its performance is above average. Media Metrix reported 47 million unique visitors to Yahoo!, 39 million to MSN, and 31 million to America Online in June 2000. In terms of online shopping, the top portal shopping site in June 2000 was Yahoo! Shopping, with 5.8 million unique home-based visitors, according to Nielsen/NetRatings (Quick 123).

Shopping Cart Selection

The company has two options. If the company decides to lease a web server space, they may consider One World Hosting. It is a host of online businesses that offers shopping cart customization and programs. But if the company opts to host its website, the company must procure a shopping cart software. Its functions must:

  • Allow shoppers to review the services and products they wish to purchase;
  • Allow shoppers to remove items from the cart;
  • Offer more information on the services or products such as pricing, taxes, shipping charges, description, and availability;
  • Ask shoppers if they wish to continue or check out;
  • Accept and confirming orders with billing and shipping information.

The software may be purchased from Apex Interactive, Inc. or Virtual Cart.

Database

The company may use Oracle Systems DBMS to integrate the customer database with that of their physical operation database.

Security

Digital authentication will be used for the website. Each customer will be provided with a password and digital certificates to ascertain their identities. There are three ways to authenticate the user: what the user knows; what the user has; and what identifies the user physically. A firewall will also be used to regulate access between the company’s computer system and the Internet to avoid intrusion. A separate virus program will also be installed to secure the system from virus attacks.

For additional security, Secure Socket Layer (SSL) will be utilized. It creates a secure “tunnel” between a user and server by encrypting data, allowing for server or client authentication, and ensuring the integrity of the message. (Quick 38) But SSL provides security during transmission between browser and server.

Payment Handling

The Electronic Bill Presentment and Payment will be used to generate billing statements for the customers. It allows the company to bill the client and secure payments through the Internet. The invoices are transmitted through an e-mail sent to the client with a link provided for the online payment. PayPal or Authorize.net handles the payment processing.

The company may also maintain its existing policy. When the goods and services are delivered to the client, the company may collect upon presentation of billing.

Distribution

The company can handle the distribution aspect if the orders are within a 50-mile radius. However, should there be contracts from areas not within their jurisdiction, the company may outsource the service to e-fulfillment.com or similar entities that assist companies in their delivery of goods?

Outsourcing Options

If the company finds that their existing customer service or call center cannot accommodate the load of orders from customers, they may opt to take the services offered by AT&T Corp. or Qwest Communications. These companies offer network-based call centers to assist business enterprises and can handle a greater volume of calls.

Doing the Math: Determining ROI

How the potential e-business would fare is an important element in planning for a web-based enterprise. Determining the rate of return or ROI in some ways could give the business owner a picture of what to expect. Jeffery in Return on Investment Analysis for E-business Projects defined ROI as “a project’s net output (cost savings and/or new revenue that results from a project less the total project costs), divided by the project’s total inputs (total costs), and expressed as a percentage.” (1) This is expressed as:

Formula

The project inputs include “all of the project costs such as hardware, software, programmers’ time, external consultants, and training.” (1)

Other methods supplementary to determining the viability of the project include Net present value (NPV), Payback Method & Internal Rate of Return (IRR).

Net Present Value

Net present value (NPV) is a method of comparing the value of money with the future. It also takes into consideration and returns. It is defined as the “difference between the present value of cash inflows and the present value of cash outflows. NPV is used in capital budgeting to analyze the profitability of an investment or project” (“Net Present Value”). There are drawbacks to using this valuation method. The NPV is quite sensitive to discount rates. Applying different rates will yield different results. Since it is quite difficult to peg a definite rate, then using the NPV to predict future yields would be uncertain. It would be more complicated to use NPV especially if there are multiple discount rates and multiple cash flows. Net present value (NPV) is calculated as:

Formula two

Where t – the time of the cash flow; n – the total time of the project; r – the discount rate; Ct – the net cash flow (the amount of cash) at time t.; C0 – the capital outlay at the beginning of the investment time (t = 0). (“Net present value,” (b))

Internal Rate of Return

Internal rate of return (IRR) is often used to rank the different yields of prospective projects that a firm intends to undertake. The project that receives the highest IRR would be best implemented first. The value of an IRR can yield a positive or negative number. IRR’s are valuation tools measuring the rate of growth of a given project. It can be used as a measure of the growth potentials of a firm’s project. However, should the firm’s projects register a negative value, then the firm has the option to just re-invest its earnings back into the market.

The IRR has limitations because it uses a single discount rate to project future earnings. It is best for evaluating short-term projects. IRR is not suitable for long-term projects with fluctuating discount rates. Compared to NPV, IRR is simple to use because it uses a single discount rate.

In On Investment rate criteria based on Internal Rate of Return, Gronchi suggested that the IRR be used to evaluate decision-making if and only if the condition is unique. However, uniqueness is established if the “full validity of standard decision-making procedures based on the internal rate of return, is limited to a proper subset of the set of projects whose internal rate is unique (174). He also observed that IRR could be successfully used as a valuation tool in two aspects: investment operations and financing operations. His proposition regarding the purpose of IRR in valuation “’reveals’ that an internal rate of return is an interest rate uniformly applied to some consecutive (investment, financing or null) operations into which a project can be uniquely decomposed” (176). He later concluded that IRR as a decision-making tool can produce meaningful results if applied to lending rates (177).

Payback Method

The payback method determines the “length of time required to recover the cost of an investment.” (“Payback Period”) The payback period is calculated as:

Formula three

The option with the shorter payback period is selected and deemed a better investment option if all conditions are congruent.

The payback method is often used as a supplementary measure to other more complicated appraisal techniques. The payback method operates on the premise that the longer it takes for returns to be realized the more chances of things going wrong in the future. Finally, payback is most useful for firms with “liquidity difficulties and may therefore wish a project to return cash flows quickly, thus reducing the risk of insolvency” (Mcmenamin 360)

To calculate the projected ROI, the owner can consider Table 1 (adapted from Alberta future entre 8).

Table 1 – Projected Revenues

Item Description Cost
New Customers The company must project the number of expected customers gained solely from the website Cost computed annually
New Opportunities What does the company plan to sell and how much? (cost + quantity) Cost computed annually
Total Expected Revenues New Customers + New Opportunities

To compute for the projected ROI, consider Table 2.

Table 2 – Projected ROI (adapted from: Alberta efuturecentre 8)

Description Projected ROI
Total projected revenues / Projected costs The result will yield how many times a projected earning could yield.
When time is factored in,

Total projected revenues
Projected Costs + Time costs (computed annually)

The result will also yield how much a projected earning would yield. This will give the owner an idea on what to expect in the future.

Conclusion

In the foregoing discussion, several issues were considered in exploring the possibilities of adopting small businesses into e-commerce. Before going into IT-driven applications, small firms had to consider many aspects and issues associated with e-commerce. Not all small businesses are ready to make a transition into e-commerce. However, one could not discount the positive effects of going virtual. E-commerce levels the playing field for both small and big players. It also allows small firms wanting to expand their business to reach more customers and take advantage of the ubiquitous nature of cyberspace.

Careful evaluation of existing business strategies should be undertaken to ensure the smooth transition into the new business ecology. Future studies on evaluation metrics and considerations should be considered to support decision-making. Small and medium-scale entrepreneurs are significant contributors to a country’s economy. Hence, all possibilities to sustain the business should be explored.

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