Starting an eCommerce business is becoming easier by the day. More business owners are looking to expand their online efforts to include eCommerce and build a true online business. Unfortunately, this presents a large set of challenges, not least of which is the threat of larger, better funded competitors online.
Thankfully, the key to successful eCommerce isn’t complicated. By planning ahead and considering your goals and your audience you will greatly increase your chances of success. Here’s three simple ways to make your online shop stand out from the crowd.
Step 1) Focus on Your Best Products
Selling your entire inventory online is unnecessary and often a mistake. Instead, sell a small sub-set of your products that you think may sell well online. For each product, provide a high level of detail describing the product. Follow up with some solid advice on how to choose the correct product for you, or provide expertise and background on the origins of the product.
This way, instead of building an impersonal warehouse-style shop online, you’re providing more of a boutique, – a personal experience that actually engages the customer and answers more of their questions than other shops do. Think of a supermarket versus a boutique fashion store – one simply fulfills their function, the other assists you to make the right buying choice with passion, knowledge and a personal connection.
Make a conscious decision to be the boutique; supermarket-style online stores are everywhere. Most products can already be found online, but there’s often a lack of detail and advice regarding the product. This can become an important and trust-building point of differentiation between you and your competitors.
This approach also has the added benefit of increasing your chance of ranking in search engines for the products you sell. Because you have plenty of content and information about the products in question, search engines will see you as an authority on that product. Search engine optimization is a whole other article but to put it simply: the more content you have that’s useful and relevant about the products you sell, the higher the chance your shop will rank in search engines when people search for the products on your site.
Here’s a quick to-do list to help you gain focus in your product lines.
- Position yourself. Write down clearly who you are and what you do, and use this as a reference for your decision making. Don’t be afraid to go niche: if you are the boiled, peppermint lolly expert in London, say so… and live up to it.
- Choose Your Products. Choose products that fit your positioning. You might sell strawberry licorice in your offline sweet shop, but boiled peppermint lolly experts wouldn’t sell strawberry anythings! Also, be conservative and choose your best selling or most unique, hard to find products. Your product mix can help you differentiate yourself online, so choose wisely and don’t be afraid to make a statement. Engage your customers. Allow them to leave comments on products. Write a blog about the heritage of boiled lollies. Show your passion and enable others to share their passion on your website.
- Write fun, interesting or useful content. Can you write a ‘how to’ article about your niche – How do you make boiled lollies at home? Can you write a ‘history of’, or a ‘when to use’, or a ‘how we make’ article? Be creative and be willing to share your knowledge – this sort of content helps with search engine rankings and it helps your customers identify you as an authority they can trust.
Once you’ve chosen your product line and your online inventory, it’s time to turn your attention to your potential audience. Online shoppers are a fickle bunch who will do a lot of research as they compare your offerings to others. But rather than be threatened by the comparison shopper, embrace them and use their research mindset to your advantage.
Step 2) Embrace the Comparison Shopper
Comparison shopping is the norm online; Google is probably the biggest price comparison service around! Not only do online store owners need to accept the comparison shopper mentality, savvy web merchants can leverage this mindset to great effect.
In most cases, however, you cannot (and should not) compete solely on price. Usually this is because you are not the cheapest option out there… and you don’t want to be. Your point of differentiation probably lies elsewhere, such as service, quality, or those little added extras that only you provide. In this case, you should engage in a simple type of proactive comparison rebuttal.
Doing so is quite easy. Simply tell your customers why you are different. Openly and honestly compare your offering with your competitors, either specifically by name (i.e “Bob’s Sweets offers…”) or generally (i.e “our competition offers…”). There are two options in presenting this sort of comparison.
- The Checklist. Here, you provide a checklist comparison chart – where you list you and your competitors and the features that each of you provide. This is easy to scan, digest and understand. It is extremely effective at conveying the differences between you and ‘the competition’. All you need to do is provide a handful of features or extras that you offer that others don’t. Naturally, do your research and make sure your comparison is accurate – especially if you do in fact name your competitors in your chart.
- The Pitch. Provide a written, non-enumerated web page outlining in prose form why your customers should choose you. Make it a page called ‘Our Difference’ or ‘Why 1000 people chose Boiled Lolly Corp last year’. Include customer testimonials with real photos of the customers.
So, how do you choose your approach? Simple: the first approach is a winner if your benefits are clear cut, logical and if your audience is primarily motivated by facts and figures rather than emotions. This varies from industry to industry, but generally you can lean on your intuition about your customers and what they’re going to be attracted to. Think about what ‘feels’ right for your product mix and your branding. For example, if you’re selling tools, computer parts and electronics, or if your branding is no-nonsense and direct, I’d suggest that the checklist approach probably ‘feels’ right.
The second approach will suit if your product or service’s advantages are more intangible, emotional or based on a ‘prestige’ mindset. This is because The Pitch approach is deliberately emotional. It avoids a logical break down of facts and uses testimonials to provide social proof. It should be convincingly eloquent – in many cases, you may want to hire a professional copywriter. It must appeal to the desires, perceptions, and even the social status that your product or service may bring. Again, this approach will feel right or wrong depending on your branding, your products and your services. If your point of differentiation revolves around emotional connections, good service, or a strong sense of heritage, then this is the choice for you.
Whatever your choice on how to do it, by openly and directly featuring why you are different you’re providing the comparison shopper with some food for thought. Most shoppers ostensibly compare prices, but they won’t always buy the cheapest option. The design of the store, the ‘feeling’ your website imparts and the overall delivery of your products or services does matter, and can make all the difference.
After embracing and then converting our comparison shoppers, it’s time to turn our attention inward to the most important part of any online business: you.
Step 3) Online Businesses, Not Websites
Many online merchants still think of their online store as a website that sells products. And yet, how many times have you heard business owners complain that their website and online shop were a waste of money – no-one visits and no-one buys? The truth is, their lack of success is due to a failure to see their website as something more than a brochure that one creates and then leaves online for customers to find.
The harsh reality is that there are billions of websites out there – how many of them are actually being seen by their intended audience? Building a website is simply the first important step towards growing an online business.
A store owner with this mindset treats the launch of their website as they would the opening of a new branch or office. Just like their bricks and mortar store, their online store is an ongoing business that needs attention.
Here’s a checklist to help you treat your online store as a business.
- Have you prepared a marketing plan? A website needs marketing to gain exposure, will you be buying advertising? Conducting search engine marketing? Or will you be writing articles for online article directories? How about press releases? Are there any complementary businesses that you can engage in cross-promotion with? How will you be analyzing results and targeting your messages? You’ll need answers to all these questions.
- How are you capturing your leads? Customer information such as names, phone numbers and email addresses are extremely valuable. Capturing this information gives you another chance to convert them into a buyer in the future. How are you capturing these details?
- How are you converting visitors? What’s your primary goal for your website? Every website must have a business-oriented goal. Is it a purchase in your online store? Is it filling in a ‘contact us’ form? Signing up to your email newsletter? Your website should be built around driving visitors to your goal.
- Whats your strategy to bring customers back to your store? After a customer purchases from your site, or submits a ‘contact us’ form, you need a strategy to re-engage them with your business. Email marketing is a common way to do this, and is very effective for online stores. You can offer discounts, make product announcements or simply share the latest tips and tricks, the possibilities are wide and varied.
It’s Worth the Effort!
In 2009, more and more business owners will take their sales online – but how many of them will succeed, and how many will be wasting their money in a fruitless exercise? Ultimately, the key to success lie in careful thought, preparation and planning. There are no get-rich-quick schemes – committing to an online business is a significant undertaking that requires on-going effort from its owner.
However, it really is worth the effort. An online store is the most scalable, efficient and effective way to grow your business, and the opportunities, exposure and profits that it can bring to your business are significant. But remember, as with most things, a little effort and preparation goes a long way.
Main photo: The Rocketeer