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Your business and the Internet

March 1, 2005 By    

The remarkable evolution of the electronic age is transforming how all of us communicate, make decisions and conduct business. I am beginning to agree with many technology experts that say the changes are still in an early stage and that we will marvel, in just a handful of years, at how cumbersome and slow our methods of communications seem today.

 Carl Hughes
Carl Hughes

Just a few years ago, email was more of a novelty than a necessity. Today, practically all important communications I receive at home and at work about events, times, changes and expectations come via email.

It is more valuable at my home to have the Internet up and running than to have our land phones operable. I do not travel without first researching online where I am going and shopping for the best way to get there. I buy few products of any significant value without first conducting online research about the various manufacturers, features, prices and locations where I can find the product.

Consider these facts:

  • Internet World Stats, an organization that compiles data on global Internet usage, reports that 67 percent of the U.S. population – 199 million people – uses the Internet.
  • World-wide Internet usage has grown from 16 million users in 1995 to what is now approaching 1 billion users.
  • Each year over 100 million new users (people) on the planet access the Internet.
  • Nielsen reports that in the United States about one in three active users shop via a browser every month.
  • Online U.S. retail sales for 2004 amounted to $145 billion, which is 7 percent of all U.S. retail sales. That is up from $114 billion in 2003 and $84 billion in 2002.

Our children – and especially their children – will not be able to understand how we shopped, communicated and/or made purchase decisions just a handful of years ago. If you stop and think about it, we truly are in a transformational time in our history.

How quickly has the retail propane industry reacted to this change? My question is focused on what each of us has or has not done to make our companies available or marketable via a Web site so potential customers can locate us and make a supplier decision.

I randomly picked retail companies listed in the NPGA directory and tried to pull up Web sites for those members. My very non-scientific test found fewer than one in 10 had a Web site. This clearly shows our industry’s lack of participation in the Internet age.

Why aren’t there more of us online? Here are some possible explanations:

  • The retail propane business is mostly rural and local – people select propane suppliers from who they know, not off the Internet.
  • Retail propane marketing is best handled using “word of mouth” advertising – a neighbor tells another neighbor. Again, it’s not often done electronically.
  • Many of us may suspect that our customers are not active on the Internet, so we decide it is a waste of time.
  • Rural America has connectivity problems to the Internet and has little broadband access.

Some things to think about

How does the new family that is moving into your area know how to consider your company as a potential propane supplier?

If that family does hear about you through word of mouth, but cannot access you on the Internet, is that a barrier to you gaining them as a customer?

If your competitor has a Web site and you don’t, doesn’t your competitor have a leg up on gaining that new family in your area?

What does it say about your company when potential customers compare your business with others? Is the total package the image you want to project?

What does it tell your current customers about your business as more and more of those customers use the Internet in their daily lives?

Isn’t your presence on the Internet a form of representing your company to your marketplace, establishing an image that will attract new business and confirming the image you want to maintain for your current customers?

To compete and grow, you must stay up-to-date. Like it or not, the Internet is growing in importance as a tool that can work to your advantage. Don’t get left behind!

Carl Hughes is vice president of business development for Inergy LP. He can be reached at 816-842-8181 or by email at Chughes@InergyServices.com

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