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Electronic commerce offers small businesses big benefits, says NMSU prof

It seems you cannot open a newspaper or turn on the television these days without seeing or hearing about the marvels of electronic commerce. But is it really all it's cracked up to be? Elise "Pookie" Sautter of New Mexico State University's College of Business says it can be a very strong medium for businesses who take advantage of its capabilities.



Elise "Pookie" Sautter, NMSU marketing professor, helps a student in one of her classes. (NMSU photo by Michael Kiernan)

The Internet is an incredibly powerful tool, Sautter said. "It's like a new industrial revolution. It really can change the way we do things."

Electronic business, also known as e-business, goes beyond buying and selling over the Internet. It includes using the Internet for any business function, including communicating with employees, customers and suppliers, distributing product and company information and conducting market research.

Sautter, an associate professor of marketing, is team-teaching E-commerce and Marketing Relationships, one of three e-business classes offered this semester in NMSU's business college. The other courses address business models of e-business and how e-business influences the traditional U.S. economic structure.

The courses were developed because business college faculty recognized the need to keep students up-to-date with the newest business methods. They used a grass-roots approach to develop an e-team composed of members from many of the college's departments to explore incorporating e-commerce topics into the college's curriculum.

To keep themselves current, faculty members spend time online, looking for samples of both practical and ineffective uses of e-business. Sautter often shares these cases with her class, and requires the students to find their own examples. "It's important to know what's out there," she said. "They need to see what the possibilities are."

She believes e-business will help New Mexico "go beyond where we are now." Because the state is so reliant on small or family businesses, it is important for them to see the variety of opportunities e-business presents, she said. Before now, business "has traditionally seen the value of the Internet only at a global or national level," Sautter said. "Now we are beginning to see how we can utilize it at the local level."

For example, if a city's Chamber of Commerce were to set up a Web site linking to local businesses, those small businesses would have a way of getting browsers to their sites, and could extend special offers to online customers. Businesspeople often think they need to advertise on television and by direct mail, which can be expensive, Sautter said. These examples would offer small businesses easily affordable promotional opportunities and expanded market access.

"True e-commerce, buying and selling, is a very small part of what the Internet is used for," Sautter said. "Many don't recognize the broader advantages offered by e-business."

In addition to offering a cost-effective way to reach key audiences with information and promotions, another significant advantage is improved communication. The ability to network and communicate more efficiently with others in the supply chain, including suppliers, customers and business-to-business transactions, is valuable, Sautter said.

Although e-business can provide benefits for small businesses, there are some pitfalls they should watch out for. One of the most common mistakes in creating Web sites is putting too much glitz on the screen, thus making it load slowly, Sautter said. Users will leave the site.

Also, given that New Mexico is likely below the mark on Internet infrastructure, it is a good idea to always provide a text-only option to Web pages, which viewers can use if the full graphics mode is too slow, Sautter advised.

Certainly, e-mail expectations are another issue, she agreed. She recommended having a policy stated online, such as that someone will respond to e-mail within 48 hours. "Similarly, the task needs to be assigned to a particular person or persons in the business to be sure it is handled in a timely and systematic fashion," she said.

Finally, Sautter recommends changing the Web page frequently to keep customers coming back to the site, rather than visiting it once and never having a reason to come back.

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PHOTO: pookie_sautter.jpg
CUTLINE: Elise "Pookie" Sautter, NMSU marketing professor, helps a student in one of her classes. (NMSU photo by Michael Kiernan)

Rachel Kendall
Feb. 14, 2000