Allison Barr Allen is the Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer at Fast, based in San Francisco.
As Covid-19 drove people into lockdown this year, it also drove them online in nearly every aspect of their lives. Entire companies relocated to Zoom. Doctors treated patients through computer screens, and e-commerce giants saw their profits soar. Meanwhile, small businesses, particularly those that depend on a physical presence to sell their products or services, have been hit hard. Just as online shopping went from a convenience to a necessity for consumers, digital channels have become a requirement for retailers of all types and sizes to survive. And even when the pandemic is over, there is ample evidence that customers will continue to shop online in ever-greater numbers.
While most retailers today have some kind of online presence, the world of e-commerce technology can be vast and confusing. It seems like it should be straightforward: Find online store software for a shopping cart and payments, and then upload photos, write descriptions and publish. But it actually comes with a wide range of decisions to make. And now that people are shopping for almost everything online, that experience has to be as painless and pleasant as possible. If a company’s digital shopping experience is outdated, hard to navigate, too long or doesn’t feel secure, people will go elsewhere, even if it means buying an inferior product or paying more. And if a seller relies on an existing giant marketplace like Amazon for its e-commerce infrastructure, it gives up a significant part of its revenue and a crucial direct relationship with their customers.
The good news is that if you’re a retailer of any kind going online for the first time, or you have an e-commerce store but want to improve the shopping experience to be competitive and sustainable, there are now many tools and resources that can help you build a powerful digital sales channel. You may be familiar with e-commerce platforms like BigCommerce, Shopify and Magento that are popular with small and medium businesses, but it’s important to think about how to use them and what to prioritize. It’s a given that your store should be well organized and secure, but other details about what will make your particular brand successful online might be less obvious. Here are some questions and variables to consider.
What will your customers expect from you?
If your in-store experience has largely defined your brand so far, you want the online experience to feel consistent and support your strengths, adding convenience without confusion.
For example, if you’re known for great promotions and sales events, make sure you choose a tool that lets you add coupon codes and manage promotions across your site with flexibility. If you have a wide selection of certain kinds of products, you want to be able to include lots of variations in size, color, etc. in a way that’s easy for shoppers to navigate. If you carry lots of brands and models of similar products, you also want customers to be able to compare them side by side.
If your visual brand is strong, you want to make sure you can customize your store for a seamless look and feel. And if your in-person business is known for excellent or high-touch customer service, use a platform that supports customer service tools and management and gets good reviews for customer service itself in case you or your buyers hit snags.
Finally, if there’s anything my years of working in payments has taught me, it is never to underestimate the effect of a seamless payments process on shoppers’ experiences and your sales. Choosing a payments partner that makes the final step of buying quick and easy, rather than time-consuming and confusing, can be the difference between meaningful sales growth and frequent cart abandonment.
How will new customers find you?
An obvious benefit of an online store is that your brand and products can reach more people. But it also means you’re competing with every other similar business online for the same new customers.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is one of the most important factors that will bring people to your store when they search for the products you sell. Big pieces of the SEO puzzle include the URL structure of your site’s pages, site speed and page titles. If organic traffic is important to your customer acquisition (much like a centrally located physical storefront would be), SEO will play a big role.
Social media could also be an important channel for marketing to new customers online, especially if local word of mouth is a big driver to your brick-and-mortar business. But the power of social media goes beyond building a following and posting store links on your various feeds. It also includes things like making it easy for customers to share products directly from the product page and selling directly on social platforms themselves, such as with Pinterest buy buttons or shopping on Instagram. If social media is or will be a significant part of your marketing plan, find out how various e-commerce tools integrate, and work with those networks.
Enter a level playing field.
In the new era of e-commerce, even the most beloved local brands need a digital-first strategy to connect directly with buyers and offer them a great experience. Even if it feels overwhelming, it’s never too late to create or upgrade your online store to serve buyers’ evolving needs. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll attract savvy new buyers and improve your ability to compete in an environment where people prefer to purchase online and may never go back to shopping in person the way they once did.
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