Is it time to take your business online?
The recent demise of British Home Stores has cast another pall over the nation’s high streets, reflecting the tough trading conditions affecting brick-and-mortar brands. While hope remains that BHS can yet be saved in a similar fashion to Jessops, HMV and Waterstones, the future currently looks bleak for a company with almost 90 years of high street knowhow, but little online presence.
The seeds of BHS’s downfall were sown in the early years of the internet when its management failed to develop a successful eCommerce website. Ironically, this was the same mistake made by its historic rival Woolworths, largely ignoring the groundswell of demand for online sales. Trading over the internet has become essential for any modern business, and even budget clothing giant H&M (which once told its staff it would never sell online) now has a comprehensive eCommerce platform alongside 264 UK stores.
So what should an established brick-and-mortar company do to compete in the split world of real-world and online trading? For any retail or sales-oriented business, the first step is to establish an effective eCommerce website as soon as possible. Professional web designers can create bespoke sites with slick checkout functionality, while WordPress.org offers a DIY alternative with numerous plugins handling everything from payment processing to automated order notifications.
Rigorous beta-testing should be undertaken prior to launch to ensure the new website is robust enough to withstand lost connections, extra items being added at the last minute, secure content opening in new web pages, and so forth. This is also relevant for non-commerce pages, ensuring video content will play on mobile devices, checking that text doesn’t overlap images on a particular browser, etc. There is little scope for amateurishness in today’s cut-throat online marketplace. Professionally-written content can promote items and enhance listings in search engine results, which now penalise unwieldy sites that are slow to load.
It’s important for public-facing companies to view their real-world outlets as a shop window for sales that will subsequently be made online. Travel agents report increasing numbers of customers discussing a holiday in-branch before going away and booking online, just as new car buyers will test drive a model in their local dealership before ordering directly from the manufacturer. This doesn’t mean showrooms and staffing costs are wasted, since buying decisions are often made here; the online purchase may simply be a cost-cutting formality. Giving customers the choice of outlets is essential, since each can perform different yet complementary roles. Every opportunity should be taken to promote one platform via the other, with store lists online and a web address on every corporate pamphlet and poster.
For a company’s online and brick-and-mortar profiles to dovetail effectively, it’s vital that both platforms are consistent. Branding and pricing should be as similar as possible (online discounts can undermine any argument for maintaining a real-world presence), and customer service should be equally efficient. A website address should be clearly identifiable as part of the brand name, unless the company’s name has incompatible symbols in it. B&Q’s website is the rather ambiguous and international www.diy.com, whereas rival Homebase has suffixed its name with a .co.uk address for greater customer recall and brand consistency.
Companies unfamiliar with the digital world also need to acknowledge the accelerated pace of online activities. Customers who complain via social media expect responses within hours, not days, and every effort should be taken to keep a website regularly updated for maximum topicality. While a local branch or office will effectively maintain itself, websites require constant revision and someone needs to accept responsibility from the outset for online communications and site maintenance. Finally, a reliable web hosting company can ensure the site is always accessible, even during periods of abnormally high demand.