Ecommerce, the soon-to-be…

If we haven’t already reached a point in this digital era where a website is just as much a business requisite as a product to sell and a customer to buy, we’re not far off.

The fact that entire enterprises can exist wholly online while brick-and-mortar companies without a web presence can go virtually unseen is a clue to ecommerce’s gaining mobility, and a wake-up call to companies operating solely offline.

In reaction to and preparation for a digital takeover, a number of industry companies are coming out with apparel-decoration-specific Internet solutions, and we’ve assembled some of their tech gurus to tell Printwear readers how to pull online anxieties down as they build websites up.

If you build it…

“During these turbulent economic times, we’re seeing lot of retail shops shutting down while Amazon.com which does not have any retail stores recorded eight percent growth through its online store,” remarks Vasu Ram of SolveIT Corporation.

In fact, ecommerce rates, says Anders Rask, RSK Tech Ltd., remain far above the economy as a whole. With a majority of U.S. Internet users also being online shoppers––and clothing/shoes among the fastest-growing web segments––Internet trade holds great potential for the custom-apparel industry.

“Ecommerce can quite rightly be seen as an escape route out of the current economic slump,” Rask comments.

Arguments for having some kind of web existence go on and on. At its most basic, a website is a business’s likeliest way to get in front of potential patrons. Once found, consumers may take some time to learn more, but only if compelled.

“A successful website that focuses on promoting a product or service,” reports Kelly Ragland of Rags To Stitches Productions, “has roughly eight seconds or less to capture a user’s attention and get their initial message across without losing them to continue their search.”

One consumer-capture technique involves taking shoppers a step deeper into the production process by dynamically engaging them in their own garment customization. This kind of interactivity lends itself well to the online storefront mix at both ends, enhancing visitors’ shopping experiences by allowing them to pick and personalize products, and simultaneously saving the fulfilling decorator’s time upfront.

“Allowing your customers to actually order online provides better customer service plus, if it’s easy to order from you then they’re more likely to do it, right?” asks Wilcom’s Kristi McKenzie. “You can really extend your business presence without increasing staff in that way. Customers know what products you have available, can choose exactly what color they want and it means you don’t have to worry about allocating someone to take customer inquiries. It kind of gives you another sales consultant.”

Ready, set, go live

Applications to take a site from static to shopping experience are currently packaged in many forms. But before wading through the website building and enhancing technologies, sources say to first consider goals and business needs.

“A good start is to plan out a website story board with how many web pages you’ll need,” Ragland suggests, “what content each page will have, how it will contribute to interacting with your target audience and how you will provide a call to action and initiate contact from the user.”

SolveIT Corporation’s Ram also encourages e-embellishers to think long term before diving in: “Since the content is always changing, make sure you pick options that enable you to change content dynamically,” he offers. “Each business is unique and design needs to be made keeping business needs in mind.”

Additionally, our sources unanimously advise web-bound decorators to take a second look at industry-specific solutions when researching tools and weighing options. In addition to an insider’s understanding of the marketplace, some solutions providers are backed by a proven and trusted industry history.

“I’d suggest staying close to your roots and getting feedback from those in your industry,” Ragland recommends. “Ask your vendors about references. Find a website you feel suits your expectations in the same market and contact them for their experiences, browse online forums where others in the industry are discussing the same challenges you have. Somebody somewhere has been in your position before and you can learn from their success and avoid their mistakes.”

Spiff the site

One online-store option for those without a site to speak of is Wilcom’s DecoNetwork. This platform enables decorators to set up a website with standard pages and online-designer capabilities so visitors can create custom clothing based on the embellishment options offered. Behind the scenes, organizational functions allow website owners to view orders and manage content, among other tasks.

“It’s designed totally wizard-based,” McKenzie reports, “so you log into your back end and it can walk you through step-by-step. It’s like filling out an online inquiry form. If you want to get heavier into HTML coding, you can expose that detail as well, but you don’t really need to be technical at all, you’ve just got to be willing to get in and have a play, not be too scared.”

Wilcom hosts the DecoNetwork websites, which are designed to operate as stand-alones.

Other industry-dedicated technologies are made to take an established site’s stagnant status to the next level. RSK Tech’s NetShirt application is one such turn-key solution for apparel decorators, which integrates with and improves upon an online storefront. This particular ecommerce system centers in on putting the customization capacity in the customers’ hands with an online garment designer that can fit into an existing website or act as a stand-alone, be tailored to individual needs or used out of the box.

“While consumers and business will continue to prefer to deal with local businesses, it is crucial that they feel they don’t miss out by doing so,” RSK’s Rask points out. “Because of this, it is imperative that the apparel decorator offers them the ability to order online and design their own apparel as with www.zazzle.com or www.customink.com.”

SolveIT Corporation’s CustomView solution is also built keeping the existing website in mind. This system is module based and each application can be plugged into any existing site or be set up on its own, Ram reports.

Some of this system’s modules from which to pick and choose include the eStore, a framework for adding and offering products from suppliers, and eVirtual for online customization with both 2D and 3D options.

“When you render a website interactive by making the end user design a product and see what he gets, there is a big jump in efficiency,” remarks Ram. “You know exactly what the user wants and there are no order errors as everyone is on the same page. The customer, the production person, customer service, everybody is looking at the same thing and understands what the end-user is looking for.”

Reigning ’em in

Each of these industry-intended web-stores offers its front and back-end nuances and advantages to consider, with a common denominator of online personalization. With you as the fulfillment center and your website, the storefront, consumers are in the driver’s seat to access, select, decorate, order and proceed to pay for promotional products from among your offerings. While these capabilities can streamline day-to-day transactions, permitting the end-user-turned-designer to upload his own artwork requires decorators to relinquish some control.

“If a website offers a feature that allows users to decorate a garment, road blocks should be put into place that keeps their creativity within the specs of the way you do business and the production process itself,” Ragland remarks. “Everything has limitations, make sure they are clear. If there is any point-and-click method in place allowing them to decorate a garment, be sure it only allows what can realistically be done.”

Thankfully, some solution providers have also thought of this, implementing upload parameters.

Consumers may also be tempted to borrow designs from online, being that they’re already on the Internet while creating custom clothing on your site. Certain images may be easily recognizable as “borrowed” while for others infringement is not so apparent. To deal with these matters across the board, a disclaimer holding the customer culpable for uploaded art should always be included, sources say.

Amid the whirlwind of considerations for getting a website or new functionality off the ground is its performance once live, because simply getting online does not guarantee success, according to Ragland: “Behind the pictures and text lie a variety of elements that make a website search-engine friendly, browser compatible and more. There has to be some professional thought put into things such as navigation, page titles and even filenames in order to format the website to be as optimized as possible and to assure that it will keep the visitors there once discovered.”

Whichever option you choose to get and keep consumers on your site, be sure your final “storefront to the world” accurately portrays you and your business.

“When a user arrives at your website, that is their first impression, virtual handshake and introduction to you, your company and what you have to offer,” says Ragland. “It is well worth the investment to get it right, as getting it wrong can have negative long-term effects.”