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Taking Your Business Online

Jun 04, 2020
Posted by: Stearns Bank

In the wake of a pandemic and shutdown, retail businesses face an uncertain future. While states re-open, shop owners are concerned whether customers will return at the same levels as before COVID-19. Some businesses are exploring taking some or all of their business online.

Digital and e-commerce trends were strong before the pandemic. But the shutdown has added urgency and compelling reasons to consider digital channels.

However, before hanging an OPEN sign in cyberspace, businesses should consider product mix, customers, competition and industry trends.

Customers

Peter Drucker says the purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer. Can your business model be transferred from retail, bricks and mortar, face to face -- to online?

If your business doesn’t require an in-person connection, you may consider doing a greater share of business online. Even if you currently do most business face-to-face, consider whether the experience can be delivered online. You and your customers may benefit from increased convenience, efficiency and cost saving.

Is your product mass produced or custom made? If you do custom work, you may believe this business can only be performed at a retail location. However, even highly customized products can be sold online. In many cases, the online experience is more convenient and satisfying for your customers than a trip to your store.

If your product has multiple configurations with measurements and choices on size and color and optional features, a website can deliver an excellent experience.  A well-designed website gives your user a stronger sense of control and self-direction. As they review options and make selections, they submit their order with all choices and costs well documented.

And this experience doesn’t require an expensive, high-tech solution. For example, consider a company that sells bike/kayak carriers for RVs. They have a simple website that includes product information, images and a contact form. When the customer places an order, they are sent a PDF requesting specific measurements on the RV. The customer inputs these measurements on a web form. Weeks later, the customer is shipped a custom-made carrier that attaches perfectly to the RV.

An important part of this customer experience is simple instructions and availability of support. The website includes a video breaking down steps for installing the carrier. It also provides easy contact information in case someone is stumped during installation.

If your business sells mass-produced items, moving online can result in more efficient inventory management, order fulfillment and operations.

You can do business at any location, even your basement or garage, rather than pay for expensive retail storefront space.  A website can show off your top-selling products, highlight high-margin products, or feature the latest trends. Traditional product catalogs and shelf space are limited. But a website can provide access to an infinite variety of limited-demand, long-tail products.

A website gives you more opportunities to feature these products with in-depth descriptions and specifications, instructional videos, and customer testimonials. Technical articles can build credibility and trust, while boosting visibility in search engine results. Also, consider a blog with practical tips and insights, written in a conversational tone. A well-written blog can build a connection with your customers and attract links from other websites.

An online payment system adds customer convenience and ensures secure payment via credit card. Even the most basic e-commerce and payments systems provide reporting on sales trends, inventory management, customer preferences. This is valuable data for adjusting product mix and pricing.

Product Mix

Is your market local or national? Would you like to expand beyond a regional business? If so, then a website and digital presence can instantly help you access a wider market. Digital channels can quickly open the door to growing your brand and selling nationally.

Before pursuing a national market, decide what is unique and attractive about your offering. Is there a meaningful difference in cost, quality, reliability, features, ease of use? Do your materials or technology give a competitive advantage? Don’t go to market with a “me too,” vanilla product. Rather, decide what differentiates you from the competition and promote that difference.

If your product represents a leap in quality or innovation, you can charge a premium price. You should emphasize this difference on your website. Customers may be looking for your particular solution or featured benefit. Messaging around added value, in web content, blogs and social media, will give you an advantage in search engine results.

Shipping

What are the logistics challenges of your product? Does it make sense to ship your product regionally or nationally, as an alternative to in-store sales? Even if your product is bulky and expensive to ship, it still can make economic sense if there is demand for your unique offering. For the RV bike/kayak rack example above, shipping was very expensive. But this is a one-of-a-kind product with no local alternative.

Shipping and delivery services have become very competitive, so compare options and carriers for the best deal.

Niche Opportunities

Is there an underserved segment in your industry that you could fill by selling online? For example, does your product need servicing not available locally?  If so, create an online service with convenient shipping and delivery options, where customers can send their product and you charge for service.

Or perhaps you sell a niche product to a small local market. But nationally, there could be enough business to justify an online presence. You could become a national source for this product, standing out with quality, service or advanced features unavailable locally.

If your product requires expertise for installation, operation or integration with other products, consider building a service hub with videos and a reference FAQ. Your unique value proposition is your support and expertise. You could add an additional level of phone support or on-call service. In this case, be sure to accurately estimate the resources required for providing such support.

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