We can always learn more about eCommerce, especially from those who are hard at work in the trenches.
For the last week or so, Caitlin Sykes has been running a series on eCommerce and Small Business over at the NZ Herald website. Here are some of the key lessons from that series:
1. Stay on top of evolving technology
Rennie Resources started in 1999, offering economics workbooks, resources and online learning to NZ schools and teachers. When the business began, all sales were made via post and fax; today 90% of orders are done online, with very few via post.
The company’s online presence has been regularly updated:
“We have recently built the fourth version of the e-learning website incorporating what we have learnt from listening to feedback from students and teachers. More schools now have computers and bring-your-own-device policies, so we are seeing a shift towards schools and teachers using our online resource.”
Robert Ewan of t-shirt and lifestyle brand Mr Vintage adds:
“The biggest change we’ve seen [recently] has been the increase in conversion rate on mobile devices, so stripping back our mobile site and making it easy to navigate on a mobile has really helped.”
2. A blend of online and offline sales can be very effective
Holistic Hair is a natural hair care company primarily focused on finding natural alternatives to help alleviate specific hair and scalp disorders. The company sells online and through health food stores, pharmacies and hair salons.
Nigel Russell, founder of Holistic Hair, explains how the company manages relationships with retail outlets while also selling products direct to consumers:
“The online business is primarily based on a consultation model, allowing me to advise and recommend products directly with the customer and we always give them the option of buying it nearby by providing a detailed list of our stockists.
“What we have found is customers may buy online the first time, almost as a trial, then locate a retailer nearby and continue buying from them.”
Turet Knuefermann of fashion brand TK made a similar point:
“Having physical stores as well as the online presence gives consumers the confidence they are able to talk with someone with regards to their products.
“We’ve found customers are searching online for products and that then draws them to come and try garments on in store. Many of the online TK shoppers are existing customers who already know and trust our product who have moved out of town or overseas, or their friends who have been recommended our brand by them.”
3. Rapid Response can provide huge opportunities for eCommerce operators
Whatever industry you serve, eCommerce can allow you to take instant advantage of topical events. That’s particularly true in categories such as t-shirts, as Robert Ewan of Mr Vintage, explains:
“Being quick to market with products has really worked well for us in the past, especially with topical and sports-themed t-shirts. We do all our design and printing in-house so we can have new products live on the online store in a matter of hours. Back in the early days of the business this was great for building the brand, as we could release a t-shirt about a topical event then, because the product was released so quickly, the t-shirt itself became part of the story in the media.”
4. Excellent Customer Service is essential
Striving for service excellence is not just a nice-to-have, it’s a vital component of doing business online. As Turet Knuefermann of TK notes:
“Being prepared with the right systems and freight forwarders is key for fast and reliable delivery. We want consumers to have the same trust in our online products and service as they do in our stores. I think ensuring as much information is given at point of sale as possible is also important to reduce returns, and queries should be answered quickly and personally.”
5. Start small
The ready availability of low-cost, subscription-based eCommerce software means that you needn’t invest vast sums of money to get started. Take a few small steps and see if eCommerce can work for you.
Tanya Carlson, founder of women’s fashion brand Carlson, talks about her experience:
“Because this was our first foray into ecommerce, we were initially quite reluctant to throw a whole lot of money at this untested market, so we chose Smallfish as our platform. For a small, monthly fee we were able to build our own store, which we can update and edit as much as we like, and the platform is so user friendly no coding or website-building experience is required.
“Our multi-site manager took this project on and is still in charge of the day-to-day maintenance and editing of the site. There are some limitations to the colour scheme and layout of the store with this kind of platform, but it has been a great way for us to venture into ecommerce without a large financial commitment, which is ideal for us as a small business.”
6. Social Media can provide low-cost, high-impact marketing
Social Media has been surprisingly effective for these Kiwi eCommerce businesses, especially in the fashion sector Tanya Carlson talks about what works in terms of growing online sales:
“Tying everything back to our social media. New products are always posted on Facebook as soon as they are uploaded to the online store and we keep our VIP customers informed of new arrivals and promotions via email as well. We notice that every time we send out a VIP email both the online and in-store sales of the styles mentioned spike for the next few days. It’s great to be able to see our communication with our customers have a positive impact on sales so instantly.”
It’s a tactic echoed by Turet Knuefermann:
“Our Facebook presence, which we set up in 2011, has been the biggest support to our online store and has given us the highest measurable return. What’s more it’s free and takes seconds to update. I think it’s also less intrusive than the kind of email mailouts that flood people’s inboxes daily, as people choose to look at your feeds, and they’re quick to share with friends. It’s also easy to link images to the website and people don’t expect a high quality image – they just want the latest update on what’s new and to be inspired. The more you can do to make your product visible, the more people will be inclined to purchase and share their excitement with friends and family, which in turn creates more demand.”
[If you’re interested in social media marketing, please check out our online training courses at our sister site, SocialMedia.org.nz]
7. You don’t necessarily need Big Data – but you do need the right data
One area where eCommerce strongly differentiates itself from its offline counterpart is in the availability of information. You need to avoid drowning in data but you should always track relevant metrics.
Andy Abel of Need A Part, a Wellington-based online retailer specialising in small appliance parts, talks about the importance of relevant information gathering and analysis:
“It’s impossible to give users a good experience if you don’t know how they’re using your site so we do a lot of custom reporting on Google Analytics to track how customers interact with our site. This information has led to us changing sizes and colours of buttons, slimming down the checkout process, and putting certain information in more obvious places.
“We’ve also started crowdsourcing a lot of information. We now hold more than 500 different parts in stock, but there are thousands more that aren’t worth holding in regular stock. Every single time a customer enquires about a part that we don’t stock, our suppliers provide us with up-to-date information, such as the current price and whether or not it is currently available. That information is then available on the website to anyone else who is looking for it.
“In the last year we’ve also started integrating with online tools from New Zealand Post. They are really ahead of the curve in terms of free online services to help online businesses. We use their address finder to help people move through the checkout faster, and we’ve recently started using their ‘tracking notification’ system. Every time a parcel is scanned, our website is pinged, meaning we can contact the customer. When a delivery scan is recorded, we email the customer to let them know. It’s amazing, as it means that customers can get in touch straight away if the parcel hasn’t turned up. It saves them waiting three days, getting angry and then calling us.”