Woodstock Pharmacy, based in Northants, specialises in disability products and has witnessed a 15% uplift in sales since it joined @UK Plc, the online portal for SMEs. More than 2.1 million businesses are estimated to be using the service which provides inexpensive websites and e-commerce capabilities including visitor tracking functions.
"We were impressed with their understanding of the workings of the internet. You were not talking to some muppet at the end of the phone," says Tim Harrison, who is the co-owner of Woodstock Pharmacy. "They have a fully integrated shopping cart facility that is simple and cheap. And they completely re-designed our website for us."
Harrison believes that any SME with e-commerce ambitions can beneÞt from being aligned to a dedicated high-profile portal which provides a range of hosting services. "It's no good being one little site stuck up there in cyberspace if no one knows where it is or how to get to it."
The keyword tracking service which is available to all SMEs who have sites on @UK Plc's portal is enabling Woodstock Pharmacy to develop a clearer understanding of its online customers. "The keyword service indicates to you how people are getting to your site and which search engines they are coming from. We have found that particularly useful because advertising on the internet is extortionate. You need to be able to judge what value for money you are getting from advertising. We are assessing where we are going to advertise next and we can now be more precise," Harrison says.
As well as the keyword service, @UK Plc provides SMEs with individual sales statistics for the last 20 sales through the portal and lets them check orders online. "SMEs are getting high value software at a low cost because it is a volume sale. They have the ability to look at their growth across products and they have a lot of information about where their orders are coming from," says @UK Plc's marketing director, Lyn Duncan. The dedicated SME e-commerce portal is also forging links with local authorities who are under pressure to meet their 2005 e-government targets. The idea is that councils can use @UK Plc to buy goods and services electronically from their SME suppliers. Duncan adds that she is also keen to encourage smaller companies to trade with each other across the portal. "One of the things we can do is cross-promotional work. We encourage the SMEs to buy from each other."
Collaborating on the web in order to gain commercial advantages is also the recommended approach of Ian Sayer & Co, a small London-based company of chartered quantity surveyors. The company is working on a £28.5 million housing regeneration project on St Martin's Estate in Lambeth. But rather than relying upon traditional methods of posting and signing off construction documents, the company has decided to use collaborative software which has been provided by Build Online, which provides new technology services to the construction industry.
Using a dedicated website, all members of the housing regeneration project, including residents, can upload, download and revise documents over the internet as part of the on-going approval process. Messages can also be posted and the entire public sector construction project process is recorded online for auditing purposes.
"We made a decision that we would look at a more innovative way of communication. All of the drawings are uploaded onto the website and they are there for me to access," explains Alistair Russell, a senior partner for Ian Sayer & Co. "The information óow needs to be quick. The software will assimilate everyone's different comments on a drawing or you can look at the comments individually. All of the instructions go through the website. I can tell to the second when someone has read a notice and when they have uploaded their response. My traditional correspondence has dwindled to nothing. I simply log on in the morning and all the messages are on the website."
Russell admits that it has been difÞcult maintaining the discipline of sticking to online methods of working. Everyone was trained to use the system and he says the costs of using the software were shared among the 15 companies working on the construction project.
For Ian Sayer & Co, which has 14 employees, the collaborative construction software means the company saves storage space and it opens up new possibilities for the company to work remotely rather than having to be on a building site all the time. It also has the advantage of reducing the amount of time and number of people who are needed to manage a particular project as most of it can be handled online.
Rather than paying to use someone else's software, there are obviously some SMEs who prefer to develop their own in order to exploit business opportunities on the web. The Leeds-based Card Corporation has developed an interactive website which uses its own graphic software to print business cards and stationery. Customers can select and control their own designs which are then printed out and delivered to them. "We use the web as enabling technology. It is a fully integrated part of our business and not something we have just added on like a fax or a telephone," says director of development Ivor Jacobs.
The company, which has picked up e-commerce awards, now counts high street banks among its customers and is planning to introduce a range of new products including posters and greetings cards. However Jacobs acknowledges that the business still has to collaborate in order to develop overseas markets.
If the company receives an order from Australia, for example, the Card Corporation will transfer Þles containing newly designed stationery over the web to printers down under so they can be printed there and distributed locally.
The SMEs who are currently prospering online tend to be those who are open about their shortcomings and are prepared to cooperate with those who have the web intelligence they might lack.