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What Can Small Companies Learn From Online Retailers?

January 15th, 2016 by

When it comes to online business you might not always know best…

The same rules apply to online retail as to offline, regardless of whether you’re a global brand or a home-based start-up. The internet provides a level playing field in many respects – every e-tail firm has a brand, a web address and checkout facilities. So what can small brands learn from successful online retailers in terms of succeeding in the online marketplace?

Firstly, study your market in depth and consider who your competitors are. What do they offer in terms of product ranges and customer service (next day delivery costs, returns policies, etc), and where are the chinks in their corporate armour? There’s always a service you can provide that your rivals aren’t, and these additional services can set you apart. Undercutting competitors on price is difficult to accomplish, but it can form a relatively short-term marketing strategy.

Digital products like ebooks or musical compositions are easy to distribute, but physical products require postage and packing. There is a legendary story about how Amazon’s iconic DVD wallets were invented in response to a customer complaint about hard-to-open packaging. The free-postage-above-a-certain-price-point model is an ingenious way of encouraging multiple orders, while discounts on bulk buying can reduce P&P costs for the retailer. From a stock management perspective, do everything you can to avoid running out of stock; customers will instantly migrate elsewhere if they are given a reason to.

An e-commerce website should make it completely clear what people are purchasing, with high-quality and expandable product images beside clear and detailed descriptions. Break the latter into bullet points and summaries containing as much information as possible, while also being easy to scan quickly. In terms of SEO, remember that people will search online for product names or categories, rather than the name of online retailers. Don’t hide postage rates away until the very end, and keep navigation as simple as possible. Successful shopping platforms help customers towards the checkout rather than obstructing them with hovering adverts or complex sub-page directories. Sitemaps are a useful addition, and recommended-item displays can encourage cross-selling or promote pricier rival products.

Larger online retailers allow people to browse at will, so make creating an account as easy as choosing a username and password. Ensure at the web design stage that people don’t get trapped on the basket or checkout pages if they want to click back to review their items, or even better, add more products. A basket logo in the top right hand corner of every site page is vital, preferably displaying the number of items and their total value. Remember that search engines now prioritise websites optimised for mobile display (or with dedicated mobile sister sites) so ensure graphics are compressed and pages display equally well on desktop, mobile and tablet devices.

The checkout process is also crucial. Once people have put items into their basket, it’s imperative to provide a smooth and stable payment process. Don’t insist on unique questions or CAPTCHA fields, but do ensure that transactions take place over a secure server, ideally supported by a reputable third-party brand like Symantec. Instant email confirmation should be dispatched automatically, and although a no-quibble refund policy will rarely be enacted, it does reassure customers that their purchase is sound.

Social media advertising can be vital for building a brand’s profile and reputation. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram provide platforms for free publicity, and even a complaint can be turned into a customer service triumph if it’s resolved quickly and effectively. This requires constant monitoring of social media and customer service channels, with a willingness to accept the customer’s word at face value and respond as they expect. The importance of search engine optimisation and well-written content has been discussed many times in this blog, as has the importance of analysing popular search terms via Google Analytics or Kissmetrics. Finally, pay-per-click advertising with Google or Bing can help to establish a company’s reputation in its formative years, and price comparison websites are great if your prices are lower than your competitors.

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