by Plamen Doudov

Direct marketing and virtual sales gain momentum in an increasingly wired society

Last week I ordered a spare tyre for my car online and had it delivered to the office the next day, leaving my colleagues speechless. Most of them would never have believed such a thing possible. It turned out that few of them had ever ordered anything online besides concert tickets. In fact, only about five percent of all Bulgarians have ever indulged in any form of distance shopping.

Distance sales, in contrast to the traditional retail business, lack the direct contact between the seller and the buyer. Information about the goods or service is transmitted in an indirect way: via the TV, in the mail, over the phone, or online. Usually the customer orders by making a phone call, sending a request in the mail, or filling in an online order form. In Bulgaria the merchandise is delivered by courier to the customer or the local post office with payment due upon receipt, no matter how the initial order was made.

The most popular direct marketing channels are the phone and the TV. The Internet may still be lagging behind in terms of the volume of sales, but long ago outstripped the rest in terms of choice and convenience. Online shopping offers new opportunities to customers. They can order anytime, from any place, without having to leave the comfort of their home or office. Probably the biggest advantage of online shopping after the choice available, is easy access. The time spent searching for an item is reduced to mere minutes.

Compare searching for a book on the shelves of a big bookstore to simply typing a title into a search engine and clicking the mouse. Another timesaving advantage is the direct shipment to your door. However, be aware that online shopping isn't always an advantage to your pocket, and though saving time, sometimes means buying more. The customer is tempted to spend more time browsing various products or services - and end up spending more money.

The .bg Potential

Internet use in Bulgaria has been steadily growing over the last decade to reach one million regular users. This active group has an enormous consumer potential and will attract more and more businesses onto the net in search of new customers. Internet-based commerce offers you great opportunities for starting your own business. Many companies shift from the traditional face-to-face relationship with the client to web-based trading solutions. Online trading offers the advantage of being able to research the market and modify your webpage to meet the changing needs of your customers. You can easily integrate new product lines and activities into your traditional operations, which will boost your revenue and increase your market share. Additional revenue can be generated by selling advertising space on your website.

Online commerce could become the basis of your trading strategy and you can very easily create additional trading channels at the lowest possible cost. Your website allows you to sell your products and increase the awareness of your brand and product names beyond your traditional markets. This will come at a lower cost compared to alternatives like setting up new stores or launching advertising campaigns. Introducing a strategy for online commerce on the Internet will grant you global presence on the World Wide Web no matter how big or small your business is. Online shopping has allowed many businesses to lower their rent and office expenses by going virtual. Access to your clientele is easy and cheap on the phone or online. Of course, every retailer has its target customers and success depends on the effectiveness of approaching and convincing them of the service's credibility. The drawback with an online business scheme is that the buyer cannot see and touch the purchase before it is actually delivered. Τοp reasons to use internet in Bulgaria:

The good merchant never bothers his clientele. Customers must be able to make their choice without haste, in the knowledge that the seller is at their disposal. Online shopping works in a similar way. The customer browses the site, selects some products and drops them into their shopping cart. The critical moment comes when he is not sure whether the information about a certain product is correct and requires some further evidence. Therefore, you should offer complete and exhaustive information at the moment of purchase to reassure the hesitating buyer of the purpose and quality of the product. Often, some pictures and detailed specifications are enough to affirm the quality of the product and assure the client that they have made the right choice.

Often, many customers will not complete the shopping process. To avoid this, there should be very clear instructions available about the purchasing process and the absolute security of the transaction, which will convince most buyers to complete the final payment stage.

Consumers can be not only distrustful of the quality of the product or service, but are also reluctant to give out their personal data. Mistrust is due to the fact that online shopping and the methods employed in collecting information about customers are relatively new.

For some clients even the authorised use of their phone number or email is a breach of their personal space, let alone the unsolicited phone calls, sms and spam that regularly flood our correspondence. To lessen their clients' anxiety, some companies carry out their data collection in the form of opportunities to win prizes and discounts. Some sellers also offer a free trial period and deferred payment of up to two weeks after the receipt of the product. The biggest problem that online businesses in Bulgaria are facing now is the recently instated Law of Consumer Protection, which prohibits all Internet-based merchants from accepting payment upon delivery of their product or service. This is a clear weakness in the legal framework, but it obliges the company to accept payment seven days after delivery. This poses a problem as most companies use courier services to deliver the product, and receive cash on delivery. To avoid breaching the law, they must use the courier for a second time in seven days to complete the payment process. It also automatically rules out all types of electronic payments, which are processed immediately. Of course, this scheme makes the delivery more expensive, but failure to comply could result in a fine of up to 5,000 euros. This is a serious problem for the development of online services in the country. One possible solution is the use of postal orders.

Going Virtual

While this legal complication remains for now, it is likely that soon it will be ironed out, and online business will flourish in Bulgaria. It is very easy to set up the online presence of your company. You need a web-hosting provider to buy your own domain name and the relevant software, which is free in most cases - you just have to pay for your web space. Your web-hosting account should be able to support your site's traffic, that is, customers visiting your online store at the same time and the subsequent transactions. Make sure that the server uptime is also satisfactory and your webpage will be visible 24/7.

Next you will need shopping cart software, which allows your customers to select multiple products on your website. The shopping cart software automatically totals the order and shows taxes and shipping rates. Dealing with money requires security in the transactions. Having an SSL certificate is your only way to secure your website when doing transactions and providing sensitive information online. You must also monitor your website traffic to keep reliable statistics on your customers and calculate the visits to your online shop.

It is crucial for online companies to build up consumer confidence in their business transactions. Credibility in the shopping process means clear and transparent rules of trading that protect both the seller and the buyer.

In practice you can sell anything online. Still, you should consider the local market and consumer preferences. In Bulgaria, the most popular orders by phone or on the Internet are for books, music CDs and online tickets for travel or entertainment. The rest of Europe is comfortable shopping online for computer software, cosmetics, food and beverages, clothes, electrics and electronics, furniture, and various financial services. Although online shopping of this type does exist in Bulgaria, it is still underdeveloped, the only notable exception that ranks at EU levels being the purchase of sex toys, which are delivered to the client in discreet packaging and where a direct purchase may be embarrassing. Unfortunately, direct contact cannot be avoided if the client is not satisfied with the product. Warranty and return policies are also poorly developed in the country, and the customer will waste a lot of time replacing or returning the purchase.

This, however, is a problem common to all businesses in Bulgaria and does not apply only to online companies. The Internet and related technologies are gradually becoming an essential part of our life, changing our habits and thinking. The rules of commerce, however, never change, only the means for trading do. A greater variety of products and online marketing approaches, together with better regulated terms and conditions for trading, will make for an increasing number of satisfied online shoppers - and remember, a satisfied customer is a loyal customer. Your online shop is just a click away.


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