The information highway beckons

Flummoxed by the interweb? You needn't let that stand in your way of cashing in on online sales opportunities. Laura Clark talks to the experts to give you all you need to know to set up your own website

Unless you're a computer whizz familiar with the meaning of such technical jargon as "meta tags", "crawler" or "autoresponder", setting up a website can be a daunting prospect.

But with Christmas - one of the busiest times for online drinks sales - fast approaching, now is the perfect time to cash in on the internet boom.

Having an online store can improve your customer service, help you expand into new markets and drive more people into your shop. But despite the many benefits, a lot of drink shop owners are quickly put off online trading because they lack technical knowledge.

The answers to questions such as: How do I register a domain name? How can I get webspace? How do I attract traffic to the site? may be plastered all over the internet, but retailers can find themselves lost in a sea of information. To help you in your quest to set up a low-cost, profitable website, OLN has enlisted the services of web designer Alastair Cassels, licensing expert Peter Coulson, and York Wines owner Stuart Vass to bring you a step-by-step guide to designing your site and making it work.

Step one - the law

A common misconception among aspiring online retailers is that to sell alcohol on the internet you need a separate licence, according to Coulson.

"There's no online licence people need to get. It's comparatively simple if it's an existing off-licence looking to go online," Coulson says.

To sell alcohol online you need a premises licence for where the drink will be stored and distributed from, which also requires a designated premises supervisor who holds a personal licence. "The problem has been people assuming they get can alcohol and sell it from home. It must be appropriated from a licensed premises," Coulson says.

Step two - creating the site

The next step is registering a domain name, says Cassels, who owns south west London-based web design company Dot Web Design. "Plenty of companies let you register a domain name online. First you'll have to check that the name you want is available - again, you can do this online.

"Registration is cheap - typically around £10 a year. It is usual to register your domain with the same hosting company that provides your webspace," Cassels says.

Webspace is space on a computer owned by a hosting company - it's essentially a home for your website's files. It is set up so anyone who types your domain name into their browser will be connected to your website. "You'll be able to rent enough space for a good-sized site for around £200 per annum," Cassels adds.

Two hosting companies that offer good value for money are Webfusion and 1&1, he says. Or you can do your own research via the internet, or go by word-of-mouth recommendations. "The level of services provided by these companies ranges from excellent to awful, and some of the biggest names give some of the worst service," Cassels warns.

Step three - selling goods online

Next you'll need to sign up with a payment service provider. Cassels recommends Protx, which specialises in processing secure online credit card transactions and charges a flat rate of £20 a month for small businesses.

Dot Web Design, like many companies operating around the UK, can create a site tailor made to your business. "If you hire Dot Web Design, you'll get a friendly face you'll get to know well, who won't use jargon and who doesn't just work nine to five," Cassels says.

To help build, Vass bought a software package from Surrey-based e-commerce solution company Actinic. The software includes a search function to help customers find the products they are looking for, a shopping cart, an order form to collect customer details and a secure form for credit or debit card details - York Wines receives the credit card details in an encrypted message and enters the details manually into the merchant terminal.

Step four - adding content

The key to success is to keep the site simple, allow time to develop it and make it as consumer-friendly as possible. A typical website should include contact details and directions or a map to help visitors find your shop, information about the products or services that you offer, and details about the ownership and history of the business. Help build trust with potential customers by including photos of your staff or the shop.

When designing the site, it's important you reduce the risk of appealing to under-18s. One way to deter under-age customers is to include a box which people must tick to declare they are over 18. "For the most part this clearly acts a deterrent," Coulson says, although there is obviously no way of ensuring people are telling the truth about their age.

"It's almost impossible for sellers of alcohol online to safeguard against, although I've not heard of a prosecution where this has happened," Coulson adds.

You also need to decide on your rules concerning delivery. If a delivery is made to the home of the purchaser, and an under-age person opens the door to accept the order, it's not illegal to hand it over to them, Coulson explains. Many online stores such as Waitrose and Majestic therefore insist in their terms and conditions that deliveries are signed for by someone over 18.

In its terms and conditions a good website will also include details of return of goods, warranty periods, and a privacy statement about use of personal data.

Don't forget to include delivery prices. York Wines charges £5.95 for one to five bottles, and £3.95 for six to 11 bottles. When going online, Vass decided to deliver orders in his van to the Yorkshire area, and to use local or international courier services for orders further afield.

Step five - site maintenance

Once your site is up and running it must be constantly updated, says Vass: "The only way is by doing it yourself. I work on the website not far off every day. You have to make sure the wines and the prices are up to date. When you have 250-plus wines it's quite a big job."

The workload generated by a website is often seasonal, Vass adds. Last December one member of staff, who usually spent an hour a day preparing internet orders for dispatch, was forced to work full time to keep up with demand.

You also need to ensure your site's ranking in search engine results. "There's no use having the website if nobody is going to look at it," Vass says.

Most hosting companies will provide a logfile which shows who's been looking at your site. "They also provide summary pages of statistics. But if you really want to make the most of your site's logs, you need to analyse them properly and act on the results," Cassels advises.

There are many ways to increase search engine traffic. The main things to remember are that you should: include key words or terms that users of a search engine would enter to look for a shop such as yours; use short, snappy titles; submit your site to as many search engines and directories as possible; and add new pages as often as you can, making sure they are useful to your visitors and "friendly" to the search engines by being short and concise.

Reciprocal linking is believed to be the single best way to enhance traffic, so include lots of links to other websites that offer related services that could be of interest to your customers, such as user forums.

Sex up your site with useful gimmick

The Big Red Wine Company, which imports some 150 wines from France, Italy and Spain, is trialling an online case mixer that selects wines based on customers' budgets, likes and dislikes.

At, customers can input how much money they want to spend, how many bottles they want in a case, and how many bottles of a particular wine. They can then select by wine colour and provenance and can also ask for six bottles of a specific wine, together with six bottles of similar wine from other regions, or take pot luck with the entire selection.

Created by Casemixer, the wine search tool has also been launched on the website of Suffolk-based independent Wines of Interest and Adnams' Cellar & Kitchen site.

Big Red Wine Company director James Bercovici said: "It's not for the connoisseur - they know what they're looking for. This is for people who like decent wine but don't know what they like and aren't so secure in their knowledge. It's a gimmick but it gets a certain type of customer interested."

Who needs a shop when there's cyberspace?

Online wine sales are growing fast and rapidly replacing high street trade, according to members of the Association of Small Direct Wine Merchants.

Richard Loadman, director of Individual Wines, says businesses like his do not consider it necessary to have a shop to succeed. "It doesn't matter if you don't have a shop front. It's getting to the stage when you no longer have to be on the high street," he says.

Geoff Ponter, director of Italian specialist Amordivino, reports a surge in online sales. "More and more customers are choosing to go on the internet if they're looking for something different," he says.

Off-licences that don't have an internet site are missing out on a huge sales opportunity, according to Nick Dobson, director of Nick Dobson Wines. "Five years ago it was hugely expensive to go online, but now you can buy the software for a couple of hundred pounds," he says.

Having a website enables off-licences to sell globally and not be restricted to a geographical location in the UK, Loadman adds.

The cost of running an internet site is far cheaper than running a shop, points out James Bercovici, director of The Big Red Wine Company. "When you set up a shop you can pay £50,000 rent and only get a certain number of people coming in. We have storage costs and that's it. It might be harder to get a presence but once people have heard about us they remain loyal and we have a good repeat ratio," he says.

Ponter adds that if he was forced to finance a shop, the business "would fold in a year".

Useful contact details

Actinic 0845 129 4800


Casemixer 07817 635710 or e-mail

Dot Web Design 0208 287 9491 or


Protx 0845 111 4455 or e-mail

Webfusion 0800 0317 800

1&1 0870 2411 247

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