I blogged back in December about the growing numbers of SMBs selling stuff online, driven largely by sophisticated Internet technologies that helped them compete on a more even playing field with their larger competitors.
The trend has been less pronounced in SMBs selling services rather than products, however. As The New York Times points out in a recent article, "it is impossible to drop an appointment into a shopping cart without unleashing a scheduling nightmare," which means that such SMBs use the Internet primarily as an online marketing vehicle rather than a way to actually close sales.
That could change, thanks to several start-ups offering online scheduling tools for SMBs, reports the Times. HourTown, BookingAngel and Genbook are among the companies offering services that not only allow entrepreneurs to populate online calendars with appointments but also to publish online the blocks of time that are open for appointments.
A San Francisco massage therapist mentioned in the article says she has added 100 new clients since she began using HourTown's service and text advertisements on Google. She says HourTown is especially valuable in attracting impulse buyers, a key market for her business. It also frees up about two hours each day that she used to devote to making calls and sending e-mails.
HourTown's service is currently free to service providers, but will begin charging a monthly fee of $20 or $30 as it exits its test phase next week. BookingAngel charges for each booking rather than assessing a subscription fee, a model its CEO says SMBs will find more attractive. Such companies likely will partner with online directories and Web site builders, which will in turn offer it to their clients, a model used by Genbook.
An analyst quoted in the article is bullish on the potential of these types of services, though he acknowledges they will likely not work as well for sellers of high-end services where fee negotiations are typically involved, such as interior decorators, lawyers or contractors.