Golden rules for successful e-commerce

One thing everyone knows about doing business on the Internet is that you can’t simply use a cookie-cutter approach to launch your on-line operations. Each company must take stock of its own situation and develop a plan that meets specific objectives.

Having said this, there are still principles or golden rules that should always be followed to help ensure a successful e-commerce business.

The five items below are adhered to everyday by the people at Chapters Online in the operation of the Web site. Each of these guiding principles has played an important role in the company’s success in building and expanding our on-line destination for books, music CDs, videos and DVDs and software.


If everything goes as planned, most Web businesses want to see sales levels increase every quarter during the first few years in operation. For example, sales at increased 150 per cent in our first quarter.

But time after time, there are stories of companies that can’t handle the exploding nature of business on the Internet. They were not prepared for success.

A good rule is to overestimate hardware needs in order to compensate for surges in traffic and transaction levels on the site. Instead of having two servers on hand, it is better to have four. If it is likely that four servers are needed, go with eight.

When planning for growth, it is recommended that Web site owners build laterally. Web sites need to evolve over time and when there is a reason to grow the site, it is easier to add several smaller boxes to the system.


Related to scalability concerns is the speed factor. Consumers do not tolerate slowdowns on-line and a lack of speed is always near the top of the list of reasons why on-line shoppers leave a site before making a purchase.

E-commerce companies that offer a large database of products on-line must choose a solution that can service a significant load without denying customers an efficient transaction. Solutions such as Microsoft’s SQL Server 7.0 deliver the power of data warehousing, enabling data storage capabilities and query engines to cope with the millions of products residing in inventory databases.

And while some customers may accept a delay in a search of an e-commerce company’s product inventory, they will not tolerate inefficiencies during the checkout process. Microsoft’s Order Processing Pipeline is one way to give Web site customers a fast and direct route to the electronic checkout.


On-line customers can decide to shop at a competitor’s site with a simple click of the mouse, therefore downtime translates into lost revenue.

If a customer visits a site and cannot complete a transaction because the site is not operating correctly, they will often turn somewhere else to spend their money. At Chapters Online, we chose the AT&T data centre to host our site. It makes the site extremely reliable and guards against power failures and outages that sometimes affect other businesses in the city. And knowing that your site is being hosted in a secure and controlled environment gives you and your customers additional peace of mind.

It is still important, though, to back-up the entire site and create a redundant system. If you are load balancing four Web servers, you are in a much better position to handle any challenges that are thrown at you. With extra servers available sitting on racks, another server can be added in under an hour, because two of them are on standby.


While careful consideration must be given to the technical aspects of e-commerce Web sites, e-commerce companies can never lose track of the customer. The most technically impressive Web sites are of little value if on-line shoppers find them confusing and cumbersome.

When examining a Web site, one should consider the site’s ease-of-use, including intuitive navigation and information and overall visual appeal. Most often, this involves evaluating tool bar placement, link accuracy and the number of clicks to get to actionable information.

E-commerce sites benefit from consistent navigational cues throughout, including the purchasing area. Also, a clearly defined purchasing process, with options to move forward/backward or exit, contributes to a site’s usability.

It is imperative that Web site developers receive feedback from customer service about any problems that are hearing from customers. By listening to customer feedback, changes can be implemented to improve the site from an end-user perspective.

Site Data Analysis

In order to continually upgrade and improve a Web site, a company must collect and analyse traffic, trends and transactions taking place on the site.

For example, a company may originally believe that a normal shopping experience involves visiting the site on the weekend, browsing through the site for a long period of time, lazily reading about various products and then finally making a purchase.

However, after some careful analysis, this same company may discover that most of their customers visit and make purchases during a normal workday, when they are at the office with high-bandwidth access to the Internet. They may find that these customers want quick, easy-to-find content, so that they can make a purchase and leave the site fast.

There are some excellent software tools available that enable companies to dig deep into their data and learn about the habits of their customers. By knowing how a customer enters a site or why a customer leaves before making a purchase, e-commerce companies can make the necessary changes to increase sales and create happier customers.

It is an exciting time to be a part of the Canadian e-commerce industry, as companies are realizing that this is only the beginning of shopping on-line. According to what we’ve seen at and supporting forecasts from e-commerce analysts, Canadian Web site owners should start preparing now for remarkable growth levels in the industry.

Segal is the president and chief operating officer of Chapters Online Inc., the Canadian e-commerce company which operates He can be reached at