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Itís a beauty parade online

A fabricator recently said to me that he was going to hold off putting serious effort into his website until the internet went 'mainstream' for home improvements. But the internet is now the second biggest form of media in the UK. Many people spend as much time surfing the web as they do watching television or reading newspapers.

Until recently consumers found out about products and bought them at the same time. Only a few had time to go from shop to shop in one day to compare products and prices for the best deal. Now, an increasing number of people first encounter a firm online. With the internet, more consumers are able to do more research, more easily. It's changing the way the world shops. People are buying CDs, DVDs, clothes and food online: Tesco is now the world's leading virtual grocer. A growing number of silver surfers - internet savvy pensioners - are not just enquiring online, but buying homes online from builder McCarthy and Stone rather than through traditional routes. The web now accounts for £20 million of the company's turnover. Meanwhile Ford is finding that eight out of ten of its customers have already decided on the car they want to buy and what they want to pay before they even see a salesman.

It's a similar story with conservatories. By the time homeowners visit your showroom many have browsed online and got a pretty good idea of what they want and whether or not they're going to buy from you. While homeowners may not be able to order windows, doors, garage doors and other home improvements online (but it's not impossible to imagine that they will do so in future) they can - and will - decide whether or not your company is worth buying from by visiting your website.

The internet is also intensifying competition. Consumers can compare companies with just a few clicks. Getting high up on search engine results is only half the story. If your website is poor, hard to navigate, with links that don't work and pages that are rarely updated, then any prospective customers will quickly click onto another site. And your website must be memorable. Investing in a design company can help deliver a site that looks modern and professional. Photographs of installations, testimonials from happy customers, evidence of relevant certification and recent news can all establish your company as a firm to be trusted. Branding is vital.

Five years ago not being online was dumb but not disastrous. Now, in a much more difficult market, with fewer homeowners in the market, if you don't have a website your days are numbered. And if you don't have a good website, you're cutting yourself out of the loop.

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