When it comes to ecommerce most of the information you’ll be able to find online is marketing related. Because marketing is the easy part. That’s why almost everybody assumes that all it takes to build an ecommerce operation is good marketing, a technological sound shopping catalogue solution and a lot of luck.
Marketing and frontend ecommerce solutions are just the tip of the iceberg and in this post I’ll walk you through the most important areas you need to focus on (and you probably don’t) when building an online commerce business. Not site, not catalogue, business.
What does it take to build a great online store?
First of all – it is really easy to set up a store. Shopify, for example, offers all the features you need for as little as $9/month. You can start a store in a couple of minutes and start selling to your customers.
However, no successful store was ever built on software, luck and marketing alone. Top online retailers got where they are selling great products at great prices, delivering fast and making sure that customers are well rewarded for their choice. That takes a lot of work in areas most of us never notice, areas such as:
1. Suppliers and supply chain management
You are or plan to be a retailer in an increasingly competitive market. It means a lot to come up with a great idea, drive good traffic and convert it to sales but you can’t do that without the right products, delivered at the right time, with a price the market is willing to pay.
Suppliers meant a whole lot when ecommerce was not around. Now – even more so. When it comes to ecommerce, suppliers can provide you with the right merchandise but they can also take the stocks burden off your shoulders. Amazon, for example, relies heavily on its marketplace partners to increase listed products number, without buying stocks for those products.
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Key take away: before starting an ecommerce operation make sure:
- you have enough and the right merchandise suppliers
- they are financially and operational safe
- they are able to provide real-time stock inventory
- they are able to deliver purchased products fast
2. Warehouse operations
Post brick-and-mortar retail relies on electronic communication and product display. But when a product is bought it has to come from somewhere, right? Seal the deal with the suppliers and it’s off to the Warehouse, that magical place where online retailers pick products from the shelf, pack them neatly and prepare those products to be delivered.
Sounds simple? Well, usually, it is not. A decent store with its own warehouse operations has thousands of products at any time on its inventory, employs at least a couple of dozens of people to store products, pick and pack, and prepare for delivery. That’s why so many large companies choose to outsource their fulfillment operations to “third party logistics” suppliers such as Anchor 3PL or the ever-growing Fulfillment by Amazon so they can focus on what they do best (usually purchase the best assortment of merchandise, service customers and marketing).
Key Take Aways: A much larger post regarding 3PL/YPL (third party logistics) will soon be available on Netonomy.NET but until then, let’s have a look at things to consider when developing your own warehouse operations:
- technology is the key – all 3PL service providers use technology (warehouse management systems) to know at all times where the products are, what’s the most efficient way to pick those products, who should be the person in charge for each package and others
- think about the season – some seasons (such as the Holidays) are more operationally intensive then others. Be ready to employ temporary workforce to fulfill your orders
- everything needs to be tracked and monitored – security and accountability are the key to handling large numbers of orders and workforce
How is everything so far? A bit different than what you expected? Great. Keep reading and than start a new store with these ideas in mind.
3. Shipping and returns
Just as mentioned above your merchandise may be displayed and marketed online but it has to be packed and reach its destination in the real world. That’s why you need a good warehouse management and that’s why you need a great shipping service.
Shipping is usually an outsourced service. The best thing to do, unless you’re swimming in cash and you want to start competing the likes of FedEx and DHL, is employ one of the shipping providers and negotiate your way to a marketable shipping cost. Such a cost is likely to be, in the future, one you will be paying yourself – so pay attention.
Once you’ve contracted these shipping providers integrate their system with yours so you can streamline packaging and delivery.
Once in a while customers do not like what they’ve bought. You will need to handle the returns and reimburse customers for their purchase. Here you can team up with the shipping provider but your store has to handle all the communication.
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Key take aways:
- hire a shipping provider – It’s probably not worth it to have a shipping service of your own
- pay attention to systems integrations when it comes to online store – warehouse – shipping flow
- handle your returns as gracefully as possible – it may mean the difference between an unsatisfied customer and a lifetime brand ambassador
Before we skip to the next component I just wanted to make sure you’ve noticed I haven’t yet mentioned anything you would expect would be ecommerce related or innovative. So far – it’s just plain ol’ supply chain management and logistics. Got it? Great. Let’s move on to …
4. Client Relationship Management (CRM) – software and policies
Before even considering selling – you need to think about how are you going to treat your customer and keep him coming back. That’s where CRM comes in. While the term is usually used to describe a type of software, it is actually the term describing the whole policy on how are you going to handle interactions between you and your customer.
CRM needs to be “customer-centric”. Big words – but what do they mean? It just means that everything you do needs to be done “for the customer, by the retailer”. You need to understand the customer purchase patterns so you can recommend the most suited products. You need to record purchases, interests, preferred channels and basically all there is to it when it comes to understanding your customer.
Then act on that – after you’ve analyzed data make sure customer care, warehouse operations, shipping providers and even your purchase operations – all know who the customer is and what it wants.
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Key Take Aways:
- CRM is not just software – it’s a company policy on how to treat clients
- Profiling is a must – understand as much as possible about your customer so you can serve better
- “Customer-centric” is not a buzz-word – it’s common sense
- There is no “client service department” – everybody working in an ecommerce store needs to know who the client is, record interactions and treat customers accordingly
5. Ecommerce catalogue and product display
Here’s one you surely expected, maybe not so down the list: your online store catalogue. Of course – this one is important. Without one we would be back to mail orders and inventing the wheel. However, as you’ve probably seen so far – it is just a small part of the whole ecommerce store business.
When it comes to it some things you really should be taking into account:
- make sure you don’t over-design your store – your products are the most important items. Make them shine.
- analyze and predict: predictive analytics is the practice of analyzing users behavior and predicting what would they rather buy at any given time. Read more about it here.
- search, search and let’s not forget search: most of your customers will be using a search engine to navigate to your store (1) . Make sure your store is optimized. Once there, when in doubt, they will want to search for products (2) – make sure your site search works. Finally – when their order was shipped they will want to search for its location (3). Show them.
6. Marketing and loyalty programs
I know, i know – one includes the other. But for the sake of the argument let’s just assume that maybe loyalty programs online are so important that they should be a separate item to marketing. Because they are.
Loyalty is really hard to acquire these days. Especially when it comes to ecommerce. Most users will be searching for the lowest price and buy from whomever the seller is. But you can fight the trend with loyalty programs such as:
- rewarding purchases – reward your users with points they can spend on your store. It’s really effective in keeping your customers tied to your brand, as well as making them feel great about it
- social shopping – make your customer feel like a king when he can give out discounts and freebies to its peers and friends
- reward social media – most online users have some kind of influence in their micro community of friends. Encourage them to take part in your story, share your products and reward them with freebies, discounts and … well …sometimes “Thank you” is enough
Good info on such subjects is hard to find but here is a book I recommend: Facebook Marketing: Leveraging Facebook’s Features for Your Marketing Campaigns.
As for marketing at large – there is an increasing number of marketing solutions you an use to market your products and store but not all are alike. Not all are as efficient. Focus on:
- Search engine optimization and paid search results
- Email marketing
- Social media
They may not look like much but together the “incredible four of ecommerce” can mean the difference between a failed startup and the next Amazon.
Last but not least …
7. Showroom and offline purchases
What – you thought that brick and mortar is all gone? Of course not. Online retail is still at just 7% of total retail but growing fast. One of the things that’s helping it grow is showrooming. That is the practice of checking a product in-store and buying it (usually cheaper) – online.
Don’t think about ecommerce as online-vs-offline. Think in terms of customer. The customer wants to feel the product before it makes the purchase. So you’ll need to show it to him. Even a small offline showroom can work miracles for your online store.
So now you have it – online retail is a rather big iceberg. Most of it unseen. Check where others don’t look because that’s where you’ll find success in ecommerce.
Ecommerce is a complicated and highly competitive business. That’s why you need great tech. Shopify is one of the best companies out there in the market of ecommerce solutions for small to midsized online retailers. I suggest you give it a try.