Navigating the treacherous waters of the Internet to buy promotional products can be daunting, however when done properly, this experience can save considerable time and money. Ten years ago, industry insiders would have never imagined that what has traditionally been a face-to-face, relationship-based sale, could actually be done seamlessly through the Internet. With the fast pace of today’s business world, and the scarcity of time and resources, the industry has shifted, and it is now faster and more efficient to buy promotional products right from your desktop. When researching potential vendors, your first question should be: Can I trust this company with my brand image and hard-earned dollars? The Internet is filled with sites that appear legitimate, but upon closer examination there may not be a phone number or general information about the company history and its resources. One easy way to answer the trust question is to make sure the company has a plentiful “About Us” page featured in a prominent area of their website, typically on the home page. A strong “About Us” page should also have current and accurate information about the owners and employees. Typically, family-run businesses will treat their employees as family members, which in turn will lead to better service, as they strive to make each client a member of their extended family. This mindset, instilled during employee training and ingrained into the corporate culture, ensures that a $500 sale is treated with as much attention to detail as a $5,000 sale. Another important area of concern is the personality and functionality of the website. Almost all of the websites in the ASI industry are third party, cookie cutter sites with limited merchandising and e-commerce functionality. Ask yourself the question: If this company were a brick and mortar retail store, would I want to shop there? Pay attention to the details. Is the store merchandised properly? Is it clean and easy to navigate? Can I find what I’m looking for? Is there sales staff attentive and service driven? You can even use Google Maps to confirm whether or not the company is truthful when boasting about its 25,000 square foot warehouse. Many times companies operate out of a run-down apartment building, or even a home garage. Promotional purchasers should look for an online company that features its USP (Unique Selling Proposition) and showcases its competitive advantages since many of the sites offer little differentiation. Similarly to the offline world, the site should look like a professional, well-run boutique or department store. The companies that feature unique departments or “quick links” and offer sale sections, and new and unique items are the ones that have internal marketing and IT departments. These companies are focused on creating an exciting and individualized experience for the shopper. Furthermore, these companies will have a team of product merchandisers that are laser-focused on filling the needs of the user whether it is by product category, theme, or industry. These merchandisers also spend a considerable amount of time searching for the most exciting products at national and regional trade shows.One misconception about shopping on the Internet is that the only factor worth searching for is the lowest price. While shopping online will usually yield lower prices than shopping offline, consumers need to be sure that they are not blinded by price alone. Although price is obviously very important, the purchaser should be focused on the bigger picture of developing a long-term relationship with their vendor. A well-run promotional products company will assign an experienced account manager that serves as an extension of your marketing team. The entire buying experience should include a consultative review focused on needs assessment and expectations to make sure that products fit your brand image and price point. An experienced account manager will be committed to your account and will be proactive in anticipating your needs for new and unique ideas, whether for upcoming trade shows or other corporate events. Sometimes it is well worth paying a slight premium to work with the upper echelon of web-based promotional companies. Order accuracy and attention to detail will be a high priority for well-run companies, and you should notice it right from the start. The company that you have developed a strong relationship with will jump to the rescue if you have forgotten to order items two days before your trade show, or if your CEO tells you, last minute, that she needs high-end gifts for an upcoming golf trip.Last, but certainly not least is that the strongest promotional companies will have a well-defined guarantee located prominently on their site and on all communications so that if something does go wrong, they replace the product or refund your money with no questions asked. Buying promotional products online can be a wonderful experience if you pay attention to the subtle cues located on a company’s website in conjunction with your own intuition once you start the communication process.