One of the many challenges facing small businesses is how and where they sell or provide services to customers. The traditional route is physical bricks-and-mortar premises, but many alternatives have been added to the mix: call centres, mail order, apps and internet sales creating a more fluid, always-on economic landscape. Many people today visit shops to decide what they’re going to buy and then make the actual purchase online to get a lower price. Some even search the internet to compare prices or to look at reviews while they’re in the store itself.
The problem a retail store has is that, regardless of its in-store product range and the quality of its service, it can’t stop shoppers from buying items elsewhere. Price comparison shopping bots and cashback/discount voucher websites also strengthen consumers’ ability to get the best deal.
Consider what others are doing and use that knowledge when deciding your business strategy. Worldwide, retailers use the following channels to generate sales:
Internet sales are growing fast - 16% of retail sales were made online in July 2017, a significant increase on its 14.5% share registered a year earlier. These internet sales now account for a weekly UK spend of £1.1 billion. Given that internet sales are growing, many of those businesses that aren’t using it as a distribution channel are losing sales opportunities and market share to their more tech savvy competitors.
Your first experience of online trading will be a learning curve and you’ll need to do some research to find out which platform suits your business best. For example, if you are trading in vintage goods or homemade products, it’s worth starting out with a specialist site like Etsy or notonthehighstreet, where you can set up your online store in an environment with a ready-made audience for craft products. Other places you can trade goods within a third-party hosted environment include Amazon and eBay , which have dedicated marketplaces for store owners. Facebook also now has a marketplace you can test your product range in first, to get used to online trading. Starting out with your own website from the off is an optional investment. Some eCommerce platforms like WooCommerce can integrate with most websites, plus Facebook and blogging platforms, offer a cheap way to start selling online!
Websites need to be fast and as easy as possible to navigate and use for all visitors across a range of browsers as well as on laptops, tablets and mobile devices. You don’t only need to set up a website, you also need to work hard to get potential customers to visit it. Just as a shop in the wrong part of town won’t get as much footfall as its better-located competitor, an unpromoted website won’t get enough visitors. Paying for digital advertising banners, paying search engines to secure high rankings in search results, hosting product reviews from consumers and maximising unique content for Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) are some of the methods to use to attract internet traffic. You could also engage customers through social media driving awareness and further traffic to your website. Don’t forget offline marketing too. Especially for smaller businesses, physical advertising, PR and local press advertising are still useful tools for raising awareness of your brand and driving footfall. Offering existing customers a discount off their next purchase, either at the till or via email following an online purchase, is a great way to encourage customers to return and strengthen their connection to your brand.
Another of the bugbears of online retailers is the phenomenon of ‘abandoned baskets’, where visitors select items and then leave the retailer’s website without completing the purpose. There are many lessons to learn from this, but among the most straightforward are providing payment options, using simple forms, displaying all charges and showing contact details.