In the Internet age, think of a website as a storefront."Everybody wants a customer to walk through the front door," says Barbara McFadden, a principal at Tucson, Ariz.-based McFadden/Gavender Advertising, which developed the website for Boulder, Colo.-based Sunflower Farmers Market. "The website is the front door."
For independent natural products retailers, websites are essential. A store’s website should not only be the place shoppers know they can go to get answers and credible information, it also should connect with customers on what marketing consultant Jeff Hilton calls an emotional level.
"Retailers should always look at their website as an extension of their brand image," says Hilton, cofounder of Integrated Marketing Group in Salt Lake City. "It’s an extension of what you believe in. It’s not just structural. It’s sales, store hours andyour story. That’s what differentiates you from your larger competitors. It’s what makes people come back and have a relationship with the store."
But apart from this basic tenet, everything else—what sites should look like, what they should include, how and by whom they should be designed—is up for grabs. And if you already have a website, don’t be smug. Experts agree your work isn’t done—you need to continually monitor your site to keep it fresh and up-to-date.
What your website looks like depends on you and your brand image. It can be fun, with moving parts and creative graphics. It can be experiential, with splashes of color and gorgeous photos of produce, for example, to give an idea of what it’s like to shop in the store. It can be serious, with lots of educational information, like the website for Lakewood, Colo.-based Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage.
"Fun is not our middle name," says Alan Lewis, director of special projects and web marketing for the 41-store chain. "We show a nutritionist in a lab coat showing food to a customer. We have an overall educational initiative. Our particular brand demonstrates clarity and authority."
What a website should not look like is an online brochure, Hilton cautions. It should take advantage of the interactive and constantly evolving nature of the Internet.
Websites can include everything from "the mundane to the esoteric," Lewis says. The following elements are key,
say the experts:
Keep it simple. Organize your site logically and intuitively. "There’s nothing worse than going to a site and being overpowered by options," Hilton says. "It’s like a visitor coming to an office and being shown around to different departments, different areas. Guide them digitally. Keep tabs and navigation simple. Don’t overpower with visuals."
Provide key information and make it easy to find. Include your brand and mission, contact information, location and a map, store hours, sales and specials, weekly flyers, new items, events, special features and an "about us/who we are" section.
Include tabs for educational and reference information on health and nutrition topics. "There’s a massive amount of information on the web. Local natural foods stores can become the acknowledged and trusted experts," Lewis says. Natural Grocers constantly vets and updates information on a variety of health and nutrition topics. Hilton also recommends asking manufacturers and suppliers for information.
Keep it up-to-date. Take sure your website is updated with new information at least once a month, but preferably every week. Rotate the products or information you feature. Customers won’t come back to the site if they know they’re going to see the same thing every time.
Make sure the design includes a content management system for a non-techie. That’s how you keep your website updated. A CMS allows employees or anyone who’s not a software engineer to manage the site and make changes.
Make it interactive. Sites without interactive elements are dinosaurs, Hilton says. Get your customers involved in a conversation. Have a blog and a place for comments and questions, and consider including a page where customers can chat with one another.
Get friendly with social media. That means Twitter, Facebook, newsletters and email blasts that link back to your website. Whoever manages your CMS can do this too. But don’t get so involved in online chitchat that you neglect your website content. Your website should serve as the cornerstone for all your social-media efforts, experts say.
Be Google-able. Make sure your site has the proper keywords and phrases to make it easily visible to search engines like Google and Bing. It’s called search engine optimization, or SEO, and it’s important to reach customers who have never been to your store before. Let’s say they’re searching online for health food stores or grass-fed beef in their town—SEO is how you make sure your store is at the top of the search list.
Avoid Adobe Flash software. Experts say it’s not SEO friendly and slows the time it takes to load a site. It’s also banned on iPhones and iPads.
Depending on what you want and how much you want to pay, you can hire somebody simply to design your website and be done with it, or you can hire somebody to design it, write the copy for it, maintain it and provide you with information about who’s using it and why.
You can also go the template route. Living Naturally, which develops websites for about 900 natural products retailers and suppliers, provides a template for a site’s design. "But you can have different colors, different looks, customizable menus and unlimited custom pages," says Linda O’Hara, cofounder and vice president of the Sarasota, Fla., company.
Finding somebody to design your website is a little like finding somebody to fix your car. Get referrals. Search local business directories. Do an online search. Go to websites of other natural products retailers you like in order to see who designed them—the information is usually at the very bottom of the home page. If you’re really on the cheap, Hilton suggests putting a notice on your store’s bulletin board. Maybe you could even trade out website-design services for store credits.
Many website-design firms offer a full spectrum of services, so shop around for what you want. O’Hara says Living Naturally’s services include industry-specific health content and functions. Karen Gavender says McFadden/Gavender provides marketing, strategic planning and analytics as part of its package. The firm monitors the site to learn who’s visiting, what pages they’re landing on and how long they’re on the site. "We manipulate the site and make changes as we monitor it," she says.
As with most things, you can spend a little on your website or you can spend a lot, depending on what you want.
"A lot of people shy away from getting websites because they think they’re expensive. They’re not," Hilton says. "You can get a pretty good site for about $5,000 total." McFadden/Gavender says because it provides custom services for every client, it can’t estimate costs, but O’Hara at Living Naturally says her company charges setup fees starting at $250, plus $138 to $420 a month depending on which features the client wants.
Master your own website domain
You’re ready to take the plunge and get a website. But how do you get that dot-com address?
Begin by registering what’s known as your domain name. That’s your http://www.mynaturalfoodstore.com. Website-design companies such asLiving Naturally and McFadden/Gavender Advertising will do the work for you as part of their services, but you can also do it yourself. Many people go to sites such as godaddy.com, register.com or networksolutions.com, which also provide website design and management. Experts generally consider godaddy.com the simplest and most consumer friendly of the bunch.
To register, go to the website and enter the name you want. If the name hasn’t already been taken, you can register it for about $100. You have to remember to renew it every year for about the same price. Some sites offer three-year renewals. If your name has already been taken, you’ll have to either opt for a less popular suffix than .com, like .net or .biz, or try another name. Your store name also might be owned by a "squatter" who registers names for the sole purpose of selling them to people at an inflated rate. You can negotiate a price or move on.
Co-ops also have the option of registering with a .coop domain. "This would allow them to select a name that fits their business and would help position it well, based on various search-engine criteria," says Carolyn Hoover, CEO of DotCooperation, which manages the .coop domain. The domain was secured in 2000 by the National Cooperative Business Association. Because it’s relatively new, "many valuable domain names are still available to registrants," Hoover says. For details, go to www.coop.