AKRON—An employee hasn't shown up for work. Your supplier's rep from out of town is due any minute to train you and the no-show on their newest software.
Customers—or potential customers—are two and three deep at the counter, you're alone and the phone's ringing off the hook.
Does your business sometimes resemble a canoe caught in rapids approaching a 300-foot waterfall? It's no wonder retailers are uncertain of the direction to take with a Web site and whether there will be a return on their investment.
Harold "Skip" Lightfoot, owner of Skip's Tire & Auto Centers in San Jose, Calif., said he had been e-mailing and surfing the Internet for two years before he decided to establish a Web presence.
"Everyone's getting online," he said. "It's good at getting your name out there, and they see your signature and your stores."
With four stores in San Jose, the heart of Silicon Valley, Mr. Lightfoot might be expected to be a fairly early adopter of the Web. But he also has tried to prevent his online presence from becoming a bottomless money pit.
"You can spend anywhere from $500 to $15,000, depending on how elaborate you want to get," he said.
He spent $2,500 to have someone build the Web site and $300 a month to maintain it. "The big thing is that there's constant upkeep" of a Web site, he pointed out. "You constantly have to tweak it."
Currently, the site (www.skipstireandauto.com) is updated once a month but, Mr. Lightfoot asserted, "that's not enough. To do it right, you should spend at least one eight-hour day a month."
He's planning to overhaul his Web site early next year to enable online shoppers to order tires and set up appointments. "Ideally, we'd like customers to be able to enter all the information online, and they'd come in and we'd just print up the invoice," he said.
Mr. Lightfoot's dealerships are Almaden Goodyear, Blossom Hill Goodyear, Cottle Tire and Evergreen Auto & Tire.
Industry experts point out that a Web site is a form of advertising as well as a sales tool. Traffic can be measured and sales tracked, but the branding aspect is difficult to measure.
What's needed, dealers told Tire Business, is solid information on what kind of tire buyer is likely to use the Internet, what they want to see, how they want to buy and where the opportunity is to add value to the transaction so that their business can stand out.
Building a Web site involves sizing up designers and other service providers. First you have to decide what domain name you'll use, typically, "mybusiness.com."
You can check for availability and register domain names at places like register.com and allwhois.com. It's important to investigate reliability and performance of vendors such as hosting companies before signing contracts and forking out money.
Dealers can do their homework at sites such as internetworld.com, jdpa.com (J.D. Power), boardwatch.com, redherring.com and jupitercommunications.com.
Bob Buroker has sold tires at his Long Island, N.Y.-area auto repair shop, Smithtown General Tire & Service, for 15 years. He created a Web site within the past year because he knew it was necessary.
"It's a nice way to communicate," Mr. Buroker said. "It gives you enough room to tell folks what you do. The hardware and programming end isn't that hard.... But you need an artist if you want something special and not just something somebody makes by tapping a bunch of keys."
Luckily for Mr. Buroker, his wife, Susan, is a graphic artist and the site (www.smithtowngeneraltire.com) features a home page with Mrs. Buroker's eye-grabbing color palette and animation. The visitor learns more about the business, the services offered and vehicle-maintenance advice culled from Mr. Buroker's hands-on experiences as a technician.
The entire site was accomplished for about $2,000. Mr. Buroker said he plans to add more information "to help the consumer" in the "Newsletter" portion of the small site. But he admits that with 10 bays and a business that grosses $2 million a year, he hasn't been able to devote much time to his company's Internet presence.
Andrew DeVigal, principal of DeVigal Design, an information design company, believes firms that are not on the Web in some form will not be in business 10 years from now. Mr. DeVigal urged that businesses "make the experience of buying their goods similar to their brick-and-mortar equivalent, but make it faster." Avoid making the process more complicated and take care not to "sell more than the user's expectation."
Finally, he cautioned dealers contemplating their own Web site strategy to remember that "there's a lot of overhead to begin a successful Web site, so target it several years out."