Ecommerce sales strategy for beginners in 2021

Ecommerce sales strategy for beginners is a must. Even if it sounds a bit daunting at first it’s a must have if you are planning on stepping up your sales in 2021. 

Maybe you’ve just set up your online store or you have some traction already but you know there’s room for improvement. I’ll help you understand how you can extend your online sales with additional channels and strategies you haven’t thought of. 

Let’s dive in with a favourite topic of mine:

Using new Sales Channels in your ecommerce Sales Strategy

First of all – what is a sales channel? Simply put: any method of getting products to the market so customers can purchase them. For example, your online store is a sales channel. It showcases products, it tells their price and allows customers to purchase the products.

Let’s assume that by now you have already started your online shop. Ecommerce strategy for beginner tip no.1: start an online store 🙂 . Alright, that was obvious.

The web store is up and running and customers start showing up. But the web store should not be your only sales channel. Your customers are real human beings with all sorts of habits. One day they’re browsing your store, the next they’re hanging out on Facebook and meanwhile they search product info on their mobile phone. You should be there also.

Start a live shopping session. Maybe add your products to a Facebook store. You could build a mobile app that engages customers outside your store and collects orders.

It’s not just online, either. Offline engagement shouldn’t be a taboo either. Maybe a brick and mortar showroom for your main products is not cost – effective. Especially during a global pandemic. But you could set up a pop-up shop occasionally, following health protocols and engaging your fans.

There are numerous ways you can add sales channels to increase your market reach and some are really easy to set up. Others are a bit more complicated but in the end it’s mostly about your product, your brand and of course your budget. Let’s see which are the most popular sales channels and how you could benefit from them.

Live shopping

Live shopping has taken the world by storm. It’s engaging, fun, allows you to connect to your fans and has conversion rates of up to 9%. It’s one of the most effective ways you can use to improve your conversion rate while also improving customer experience.

The basic concept is that you start a live video stream and present and sell products to your customers. They are watching you either on their favourite social media or on your website (this can be done with a live commerce software). They interact with you by asking questions or chatting with one another. Through these interactions you get a sense of what the market actually needs and wants from you.

This is a great ecommerce sales channel for both beginning ecommerce startups as well as big retailers. In China, for example, it’s so big that some live shopping assistants can sell up to $140 million worth of merchandise a day during live shows.

Call center

Out of all the sales channels you may choose there’s really just two that really fit together with your online store. One is live shopping, presented above. The other one is the call centre, which can be as simple as a phone line for customers that need more info on products. But it can also be much more than that.

Ecommerce sales strategy for beginners: the call center

(Zappos’ call center is legendary and effective. It’s both a sales and support channel.)

It can just as well be a full fledged business operation with live assistants answering calls and helping customers choose the right product, handling orders and managing complaints. It can also mean people calling prospects or indecisive potential customers or just plain cold calling sales leads. Or sending them personalized SMS’s. No matter the choices you will be making, the phone is a great connection to the customer and you should build a smooth phone support operation.

Social media

You could ask – isn’t social media more about marketing and communication, connecting and understanding your customer? Yes it is but it can work just as great as a sales channel.

For example – Facebook is betting big on ecommerce, Twitter used to test ecommerce options (they’ve since dropped it) and YouTube partnered with QVC to set up live shopping. Pinterest is huge for ecommerce and their users spend 50% more than other users on online shopping. That is great news as Pinterest is more efficient into turning views to sales than any other social network. It works awesome for industries such as travel, home-deco and fashion.

Mobile Apps

What is the device you think customers use the most throughout the day? It’s the smartphone. Mobile usage has gone through the roof lately and it’s bound to continue.

Ecommerce sales strategy for beginners: phone usage is growing
Smartphone users in the US has vastly increased in the past years. Source.

So you want to be close to your customers. Mobile apps provide a special sales channel, one that’s personal and it makes impulse buying all the more attractive.

How do you add a mobile sales channel?

There’s an app for that. Actually more:

  1. Shopgate makes it possible to turn your store into an app. It connects with Magento, Shopify, Prestashop and other ecommerce platforms to enable store owners to build mobile apps. It works on both iOS and Android operating systems and provides support for both smartphones and tablets. It also allows you to set up online to offline processes such as order online, pick up in store.
  2. Shoutem is not built specifically for eCommerce but among others it supports building mobile apps for your Shopify store. The interface is quite simple and doesn’t offer many options but it gets the job done if you happen to be a Shopify user.

Give mobile apps for your store a try. The more smartphones become a part of our daily lives, the more we will use them. Your store can benefit from it.

So that’s that for mobile sales strategy for ecommerce beginners. Let’s step up your game with …

Pop-up Shops

I know. The physical stores are dead and all. Except they’re not. People still like to see and feel products.

Pop up shops are temporarily stores, in the real world, where online store owners can showcase their products and interact with their customers. The pop-up shop sales channel has really taken off (with a bit of sudden drop during the pandemic but don’t mind that). Store owners have started adopting this online-offline connection. It’s effective, doesn’t tie you to a long, fixed cost and it allows you to get an upper hand, especially if you have a great personality. Which I bet you do.

(Adidas pop-up shop. Not exactly low-budget but hey – one can dream, right?)

Setting up a pop-up shop is a personal choice but works great if it’s posted either in a high-traffic area (such as a popular shopping center) or at an industry event. For example you could set up a pop-up shop at a home-deco event if you are a store selling home decorations. It is a great way to interact with customers and get feedback on your merchandise.

Companies such as Storefront help shop owners find retail space temporarily by connecting them with retail space owners. To help online stores they’ve put together an ebook that is free for download. I encourage you to have a look at it as it explains the main steps in setting up (pup-up) shop.

Online Marketplaces

Last but definitely not least – the marketplaces. Amazon, Ebay, Etsy, Sears, Buy.Com, NewEgg.com and more. You name them. They provide lots of options to lots of users and chances are your next customers are there shopping right now. Now more than ever as many buyers are flocking to the online marketplaces to discover things they cannot buy in store anymore.

( Ebay – the original online marketplace )

Online marketplaces are key to ecommerce strategy for beginners. The reason marketplaces are the last on potential sales channels is because I want to emphasise just how important they are. Just like the “old” shopping centers, customers go to marketplaces because diversity means options and options mean they can find what they are looking for.

Diversity drives customers. It drives sales. So you want to be there but plan ahead before you dive in.

As an online store start-up you should be looking for as much exposure as you can get but still try to focus on the right marketplace. Amazon and Ebay key parts of the ecommerce strategy for beginners but before you join them, ask yourself:

  • are these marketplaces right for me? Not all that’s great is great for you. Just because they have traffic, that doesn’t mean you will get traffic and if you do, you don’t know whether that traffic will turn to sales. The most important aspects you should be looking for are exposure and sales.
  • can my product be found? expect to have competition. If you are among the few selling the product AND your product is popular, then the answer is YES, the product will be found by the customer. If your product is also sold by hundreds of other sellers, there are thin chances you will be the one showcasing the product. Part of your ecommerce sales strategy should be to make your product stand out. That means – make it look special and attractive through copy, media and of course, price.
  • will my product be purchased? If you have indeed managed to get customers to have a look at what you are offering, you must also get them to buy. Most important things are the way you showcase the product to create urgency and scarcity. Think of this in terms of sales strategy: “A beautiful hand-crafted lamp” is … meh. “A beautiful hand-crafted lamp in LIMITED offer” creates the feeling of scarcity and therefore urgency in purchase decision. P.S. – just to seal the deal – add a sprinkle of affordability (“just $49.50“).
  • do customers trust me? Marketplaces usually have some sort of peer-review mechanism. Customers can review sellers according to their fairness. Your reviews are your digital reputation. Positive reviews mean more sales, negative reviews can mean NO sales. So try to be as fair, effective and open with your customers.

Handling orders from marketplaces.

Part of the ecommerce sales strategy for beginners is making sure you can receive and fulfil orders. Listing your products on all marketplaces can seem like the right choice but it’s usually not. Each marketplace is a sales channel itself. You should be sticking to those that work for you and improve your experience there. Until your business is large enough to allow you to handle orders from more marketplaces, focus on fulfilling orders effective and quickly.

Most marketplaces offer some form of integration with your existing store and you should use those. If not native, there should be some plugins or products that make integration possible.

Product information should be going out of your online store and orders should be synced with your order management system. This way, the order management team can have a single point of entry for orders instead of getting lost in a dozen of order management systems scattered throughout the marketplaces you are using.

The big ones will get bigger

Marketplace orders will continue to be a large part of your business. You can be sure this is a cornerstone of ecommerce strategy for beginners. Marketplaces will become so large in the future that they will dwarf those from your online store. The reason is people tend to gather and shop where they will find diverse products and retailers. Just like in the real world. Online is even more so – marketplaces get even more traffic from search engines, have more money to spend on ads and are better at keeping customers returning.

Connecting sales channels – a key part of ecommerce strategy for beginners

Each sales channel you will be adding will bring you more exposure and more sales if handled correctly. The sales channels I’ve described so far are the most popular ones right now. But they are not the only ones. As technology evolves, so will commerce. Live shopping didn’t register as a trend until two years ago. New channels will pop-up and some I haven’t mentioned here will probably increase in importance.

Think about the impact Internet of Things will have. Maybe in the future the greatest sales channel for groceries will be smart appliances. Think of a refrigerator than can place orders for customers when it’s depleted. It sure is going to be an interesting challenge to integrate those in a sales channels mix.

( Multichannel sales strategy may prove to be a winning formula)

Ecommerce marketing strategy for beginners

Marketing – used by many, done by few, deeply understood by very, very few. You need to incorporate marketing and especially digital marketing in your ecommerce sales strategy, even if you are a beginner.

Marketing means first of all communication. Talking, showing, describing products to the people most likely to buy it.

It’s that simple. The basics need to be simple.

If you are going to survive as an online store owner, you need to keep your marketing basics simple. You have a product. Hopefully a great one. There are people who want to buy that product. Most don’t know they want to buy it from you. You need to show them why they should buy the product you’re selling. You need to show them why they should buy it from you. And then, if everything I’ve shown you so far has been decently implemented, just let them buy it.

Everything else is gimmicks. If you’ve got the basics right, everything else will fall into place.

Ecommerce sales strategy for beginners: find the right market

To get people to buy your product, you need to know who these people are, what they want and how they act. Most likely not everybody will want your product. But if you’ve done even a bit of ecommerce sales strategy for beginners, you will be in the upper percentile in your market.

Targeting demographics

Yup, your customers are “the target”. Why is it called that, you ask? Well, because your communication targets them. Until the internet became the norm and we’ve started gathering more data than we can handle on customers, we used to define them through demographics. That means basic info on consumers. Age, sex, marital status, location, education … this kind of data.

( Pictured here: advertising in the 60s – the Mad Men show. Not pictured here: Google algorythms and tabacco advertising ban )

These targeting methods were made popular when mass marketing was just blooming, in the days of TV, print and outdoor ads made by the likes of Mad Men. When you ran your ad in the magazine or on national TV, you needed to know who’s going to use your product, make sure you understand their psychology and shout from the top of your lungs how cool the product is. Once the ad was approved, there was no going back. Advertising agencies would research, create and test the ad before the campaign was launched because there was no way you could change, tweak or even pull back a campaign in real time.

So demographics were the bread and butter when you would push your message to the market. But the Internet changed that into …

Ecommerce sales strategy for beginners: Targeting behaviours

Basically, if you were a mid-class urban wife with no college education in the 60’s there were slim chances you would receive ads trying to sell you repair tools for your car. Even if you were actually a mechanic. The same would hold true if you were a man and would be looking for a sewing machine to fulfil your lifelong passion of becoming a fashion designer.

You would have to find those products yourself. We’ve come a long way and thankfully, we now have the freedom to fix our own cars and sew our pants, no matter the gender. Note: we should make this better.

Big changes in sales and marketing strategies started being needed when contextual marketing (the ads you see when searching on Google), interactive advertising or behavioural marketing hit the … shelves (?).

The last one, behavioural marketing, is probably the single most important aspect in online retailing. Technology now personalizes marketing and responds to customer behaviour.

For example Amazon’s recommended products (“See what others have purchased”) is a form of behavioural marketing that is based on a complex research on previous customers behaviour before they purchased something. Simply put, when people would purchase something, their interaction trail (the products they’ve seen so far) becomes an indication that people taking the same or similar steps would most likely purchase similar products. This is called a recommender system (or recommender engine). It’s kind of a big thing in our world today.

The ads you see on Google feature a similar concept. They are shown as to answer your needs. Some ads respond better than others at what you are looking for and thus have a better chance of getting clicked. Google trusts this system so much that they invoice advertising on clicks, rather than how many people have viewed the ad.

In terms of sales and marketing strategy we went from effectively targeting people to targeting people’s behaviour. Still, demographics and customer profiles are very important and a lot of what you will be doing is to try to guess customer responses based on demographics assumptions. Such assumptions might mean you will favour ladies over men if you are selling women’s clothing (doh!) or rather more complex assumptions such as “Men over 32, employed and married are more likely to buy a family car”.

Indifferently of your assumptions, test them and always quantify your results with …

How to use analytics software in your ecommerce sales strategy?

Here you go … numbers. Charts. Estimates. Hope Miss N., your math teacher, was your favourite back in school, because this is going to be damn complex. Nah, just kidding. Most analytics software is pretty much plug and play and the numbers and charts I mentioned are usually generated on the fly and in such a manner you can easily understand.

You can’t have marketing without analytics and research. Fortunately, it is a lot easier now for a small online store than it was 40 years ago for the largest companies in the world. What is not so fortunate is that it’s easier for everybody so you’ll have to dive deep and understand what your analytics are saying. So will the competition.

Once you have installed Google Analytics or one of these other ecommerce analytics software, you will probably dive in and see what your customers are doing. What you will want to look for is patterns that lead to increased sales. Patterns are key in ecommerce sales strategy for beginners (and advanced) retailers. Special products, a certain type of copy, products featuring media versus those that don’t have media. Look for what makes your sales increase.

Targeting, knowing, marketing – the most important ecommerce marketing strategies for your online store

So you know the target, you have the analytics figures, now it’s time for the actual marketing. The web is full of resources to fine tune your online marketing understanding. I will show you which are the most effective ways of marketing so you will have a bird’s eye view on what makes an online store sell.

Search Marketing: SEO

As a startup there are really little things you can do better with smaller budgets than writing quality content and optimizing for search engines. SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is a really large concept and many people earn their living through SEO services. You will probably ask a SEO expert to help you find the perfect balance so your store will show up in search engine results. But before you do that, have a look at the basics. These are the things you will need to keep in check so Google will bring the right customers to your store:

  • content: write great and extensive content. For humans. Describe your product like you would want it described for yourself. Don’t do “keyword spamming” which is the result of cramming keywords in your description so more people would find you. It just doesn’t work that way.
  • code: your ecommerce store is visible on customers’ browsers thanks to programming languages that output information in the way we are accustomed to. Search engines index this information and if you are to have your store indexed properly, you need the right code. If you are not technically savvy, better call someone who knows what they are doing.
  • links: get other (relevant) websites to post links to your store. This must count as number one when it comes to SEO in any ecommerce sales strategy for beginners. Links are the key for search engines (aham…aham…Google) to rank your website.

Email marketing

Ask your customers to leave you their email address so you can update them on news and offers. This is a great way to get people right back on your store.

But don’t annoy them and don’t do spam! Everybody hates unsolicited email. Make sure your customers give you their permission to send them emails. You can use apps such as Mailchimp or CampaignMonitor to save customers’ emails and then send them newsletters.

Social media marketing

Where would you go if you were to market a product? The answer is fairly simple: where people gather and interact. Social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest are now used by billions of people. That’s where your online store should be.

Just like interacting with friends, some things work better than others. Here are some tips on how to use social media to interact with potential and existing customers:

  1. listen first, talk later: social media is a great place to gather insights on your market, your products and even your brand. Some of those insights may not be friendly but you should pay attention to them nevertheless.
  2. focus on building strong bonds rather than gathering masses: it’s just like with your friends. It doesn’t matter if you have 10 or 10 000 friends. What matters is how strong your connection with said friends are. And probably you will not reaaaaly have 10 000 real friends. It’s better to have few, engaged fans rather than many fans that do not relate to your brand or product.
  3. find the influencers: some people wield more influence than others in their social circle. And they somehow do it naturally. You should get close to these people, develop relationships with them, show them your products and share content they might find interesting.
  4. provide value, not sales pitches: yes, your products are great but don’t bore people with constant product sales. Provide content. If you sell hats, show fans their history, tell them about the manufacturing precess, showcase famous hats. Make it interesting and valuable.
  5. be patient and constant: don’t tweet 40 times one day and than stop for a month because no one followed or retweeted you. Social media success takes time, patience and constant effort.

If your social media strategy is not going the way you’d want it to, there are always the ads. Most social networks provide ways for you to get closer to your potential customers, faster. Most people call them ads  . Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest – they all provide advertiser with the possibility of engaging fans through ads.

And speaking of ads, one of the most effective way of advertising your store and products is …

Using paid search as key driver in ecommerce sales strategy for beginners

Remember those Google ads I’ve mentioned earlier? That is Google AdWords, a very effective form of advertising that places ads on search results, ads that are directly related to your search.

For example, if you were to search for “cars”, you will be shown the natural search results AND special search ads. These ads are fuelled by advertisers that pay each time someone clicks one of their ads.

You can be one of those advertisers. By carefully analysing traffic and allocating search ad budget, you can determine with high accuracy the number of clicks you need to convert visitors to buyers. Because search ads are contextual, this means you can optimise your ads in such a way that only those interested in purchasing your product might click it.

However, paid search campaigns are usually better managed by professionals. Even though you might spend a little extra for someone to handle your ads, just leave it to the professional.

And one more thing: Google is not the only one providing the option for paid search ads. Bing does it and so does Amazon.

Performance marketing

Performance – well that sounds nice. What is it?

Performance marketing is a broad term that means advertisers pay a fee depending on how well an action is performed. This action can mean showing an ad a certain number of times or making that ad transform into a special action. The standard actions you might want to encourage are:

  • clicking
  • downloading a certain file (say a product catalog )
  • showing interest in a product (the user becomes a lead)
  • buying a product

And because marketing people happen to love acronyms, you might find the info above coded in three-letter words:

  • CPM means Cost Per Mille (that’s Latin for thousand) – one thousands being the standard minimal block of ad views you can purchase to show an ad.
  • CPA means Cost Per Action – the generic code for any action you might define with those selling the ad space. It is used for sales and therefore sometimes referred to as Cost per Acquisition.
  • CPC means Cost Per Click – the cost you will be paying whenever someone clicks on your ads
  • CPL means Cost Per Lead – the cost paid whenever a visitor shows interest in your product

Performance marketing is sometimes used interchangeably with affiliate marketing. That is  more of a misconception, as affiliate marketing, though popular, is a subset of performance marketing. It works as a shared revenue deal, where the retailer shares a portion of the revenue with the publisher (the one displaying the ad), whenever advertising turns into purchases.

Which are the major affiliate marketing sites?

Affiliate marketing is a very important part of any ecommerce sales strategy for beginners. Affiliate ads are ran through affiliate marketing services. These cover three very important aspects: they connect advertisers to publishers, they make sure all sales are registered and attributed to the right publisher and they handle transactions between advertisers and publishers.

If you decide to go along the affiliate marketing path, here are the most important affiliate networks that can help you sell your products:

  1. CJ Affiliate (formerly Conversion Junction) is the global leader in pay for performance programs. It is the home to many publishers that can help you run your ads.
  2. Rakuten Advertising is the big contender to CJ Affiliate and a fast growing one.
  3. ShareASale is a great affiliate marketing resource for retailers. Slightly smaller as it may be, it is still very effective.
  4. ClickBank works great for entrepreneurs and content creators. It is effective and easy to use.
  5. 2Checkout is another fast growing performance marketing company that’s focused on software and digital products.

Using Comparison Shopping Engines to get in front of your customers

A great way to get your product out there is to place it in comparison shopping engine. These applications gather information from more online stores and show potential customers what is the best way to shop in terms of pricing.

It basically works for those that are price competitive so before you join such a program, make sure your prices are aligned with the market.

(Shopzilla is one of the most popular comparison shopping engines)

Most comparison shopping engines are CPC based and you will pay anytime people click your products, arriving at your web store. The top four most popular are Google Shopping, Shopzilla, Shopping.com and Pricegrabber. Getting listed can draw targeted traffic and can mean a very scalable way of converting traffic to sales.

Other marketing options

So there you have it – these are the most effective ways you can market your new online store. This is the start of creating an amazing ecommerce sales strategy for beginners. But don’t stop here, don’t settle. Marketing in the digital world is usually a matter of imagination. Be curious and try new things that might be fit for your online store.

For example you can attract relevant bloggers to mention your store and review the products. You can put out press releases and talk to the media. You can  run contests and sweepstakes to increase reach and turn fans into loyal customers. Once you have the basics up and running, you will be ready to add more and more marketing options to your online store.

Testing and optimising your ecommerce sales strategy for beginners

Remember: your work is never done. If you want to keep your customers happy and sales growing, you need to constantly optimise and tweak your store. To do so you can run tests that determine what works and what does not. When testing you will be looking for either errors, bottlenecks or usability issues. Do so through:

  1. Functional testing: test your store’s functions. The navigation, user account, user login and others. Each needs to be thoroughly tested and improved
  2. Process testing: we are talking business processes here. These are things like managing orders, fulfillment, shipping or warehouse management. If your company process don’t run smooth, customers get their orders delayed, mixed or canceled.
  3. SEO testing: as I’ve mentioned previously, search engines will always be a very important factor in driving traffic to your online store. Check to see how you stand against competitors and against previous positioning.
  4. Mystery shopping: put yourself in the customer’s shoes and see how’s everything going. Place an order and see how operators behave, how long does it take for the order to arrive and more. You might find some interesting things there.
  5. Hot areas testing: some parts of your shop are more important than others. You can improve conversion rate through a careful  inspection and recurrent A/B testing of what you could call “hot areas”:
    • Homepage
    • Product page
    • Checkout cart
    • Payments
    • Forms requiring customer input
    • Mobile interfaces

Customer journey maps

A great way to see how customers interact with your company is using customer journey maps that help improve customer experience. These “maps” show your existing sales channels and how customers interact with them. Customers may find you on social media, browse products on the web store and place orders through the phone. This is a customer journey map.

When these journey maps get too complex you have to constantly test and look for signs of problems of sources of frustrations for your customers. It may be a poorly designed checkout cart or the voice of your phone operators. By understanding your target customers and their journey maps you can have a guide to testing what works and what doesn’t on your store.

Testing means improving and you should strive to make your store better and better. Little improvements and constant focus on making the customer experience better turns your store into a success. So keep testing :).

This is your basic ecommerce sales strategy for beginners

Wow!  If you’ve managed to get this far I believe you are ready to start your own store. Give yourself a pat on the back for having the patience to get through all this data. It’s not easy, I know, but it is a lot easier than just starting a store and then figuring it all out along the way.

I am more than happy if I’ve managed to help you on your path to becoming an ecommerce entrepreneur. If this guide was useful to you, please refer it to someone else who may be in the need for know-how.

You’ve taken a large step ahead to running your own business and online store. You may be anxious and a bit scared but rest assured. So was Jeff Bezos when he started Amazon. Knowledge, hard work, innovation and persistence will get you far. Have a safe trip in reaching out for your dream!

The Magic Formulas: Lifetime Customer Value and Customer Acquisition Cost

A customer by any other name would spend the same. At least that’s what Shakespeare would say if he were to try to sell his plays online. But that’s not always the case and some customers are better than others. Some customers are also harder to engage and sell to.

How do we differentiate and how can we make a good medium and long-term decision about customer acquisition costs and returns? The answer lies in using two indexes well known two marketers: Lifetime Customer Value (LCV) and Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC).

You can’t put a price tag on a customer. But you can assign a value.

Courtesy of http://gorillapodstrobing.blogspot.ro/
Courtesy of gorillapodstrobing.blogspot.com

Let’s take Lifetime Customer Value (LCV). The corporate world is often focused on quarterly and in best practices yearly results. That means that returns on investment have to happen quickly or they are useless. When short-term tactics prevail, customers are often mistreated. The innovation halts, marketing and customer relationship investments drop. Customer service is lousy. On short term executives may see a rise in profits but long term results are often slashed.

A lack of focus on LCV is often trouble for ecommerce companies and companies at large. Those employing the above mentioned short term tactics miss opportunities. The client base is often unimpressed, growing slowly or even decreasing. Let’s see why:

Say we get a new potential customer by encouraging him to visit our shop.  John Doe likes what he sees, registers for a newsletter, but he’s not yet convinced to buy. Later on, next month, a product on a weekly personalized offer catches his eye. He clicks, goes online, buys the product – he is now a customer. But wait. John will hopefully continue buying from us, won’t he?

[Read more about engaging customers with Omnichannel Retail]

He’ll keep coming back, buying something every month, say for a period of two years or so, until one day – something happens. He stops receiving his weekly personalized offer. Somewhere along the chain of command somebody decided personalized offer are too expensive. The overall operational costs dropped but so did mr. Doe’s orders. His Lifetime as a Customer is over.

In this scenario we can identify the following:

  • Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC): how much did we pay to get John Doe to a) visit our website, b) register to our newsletter, c) view the personalized offers until he decided to buy?
  • Lifetime Customer Value (LCV): the cashflow coming from John Doe’s purchases. In this case, if he were to spend an  average of $100, monthly x 24 month = $2400. But these are not all ours. Just the margin. Oh, and there will also be discount costs and other variables, but we’ll get to that, soon enough.
  • Shortsightedness: a long word to describe the fact that someone should have thought twice before deciding to cut out the personalized offers.

Customer relationship is an asset.

Any customer demands to be treated as a human being. That’s easy to say but when companies such as these handle millions of customers, that takes hard work to get done.

The Kindle Fire - both a loss and a huge win for Amazon
The Kindle Fire – both a loss and a huge win for Amazon

First, it takes a change in perspective. You have to understand and quantify probably the greatest asset any retailer has: the customer relationship. Ecommerce has made it easier for dissatisfied customers to jump boats. The leaders know this and they use it to their advantage.

For instance – Amazon is not making any profit when it sells a Kindle. The company supports costs so they can get more customers aboard. Those customers turn to happy customers and get to spend roughly $2400 during their lifetime as customers. So what Amazon loses in hardware sales, makes up in eBook sales and other product sales. Such a strategy is not possible without a clear understanding of Lifetime Customer Value and Customer Acquisition Cost, two of the most important indexes online retailers have to work with.

A formula for Lifetime Customer Value

Previously we had an example of Lifetime Customer Value and how we could better understand the concept and estimate the customer’s value. Those numbers being a crude model, we have to reevaluate and get a new perspective on this value. Here it is:

We have some variables (such as customer expenditure value or purchase cycle) and constants (such as retention rate or profit margin, which are less likely to change dramatically). But don’t worry, once you get the hang of it you’ll have a great and easy way to understand wether you’re spending too much or not enough on keeping your customers happy.

Let’s start with the variables. Feel free to adapt these to your own company metrics:

  • Customer Value / Week (a) – how much does a customer spend weekly in your shop?
  • Customer expenditures per visit  (s) – how much are customers willing to pay each time they visit your shop?
  • The purchase cycle (c) – how often do customers visit your shop each week?

These variables are defined here as weekly variables but you can change those to monthly values, if it fits your business model better. You will obtain the values above by estimating median values for all your existing customers.

When you have estimated your variables you will have to take into account some constants. They will help you predict your estimated customer lifetime value. These are:

  • Average customer lifespan (t) – how long, based on your experience, do you expect customers to remain your customers?
  • Discount rate (i) – no, this is not your customer’s discount. You are projecting a value, into the future, but you’ll have to adapt this value to present tense. Simply put – the value of a certain good in the future is lower than that of one you are holding in your hands today. You can study more about this topic starting with the Annual Effective Discount rate and than heading over to Intertemporal Choice. Puzzled? Maybe you’ll want to go with something like a (0.1) value.
  • Customer retention rate (r) – how many of your customers come back to your store and purchase from you, compared to the previous, equal amount of time?
  • Profit margin (p) – pretty self-explainatory
  • Average Gross Margin per Customer Lifespan (m) – the gross profit per customer expected in the given average lifespan (Profit Margin x Expected customer lifetime expenditure)

So now we have the variables, we have the constants, let’s get busy with the equations, from simple to complex.

1. Simple Lifetime Customer Value Formula

We will be using 1 year as a reference timeframe and we will be estimating how much will we be making in a year on any given customer. There are two main variables involved – the average customer value / week (a) and the average customer lifespan (t), expressed in years.

Limitations: this is a pretty crude estimate so it will only serve as a base for further examination. It does not take into account the retention rate and attrition (loss of customers), the discount rate, not even the profit margin. It just tells us – how much would we be expecting our customers to spend with us, during their customer lifetime.

The formula is:

Basic Lifetime Customer Value Formula
Basic Lifetime Customer Value Formula

2. Extended Lifetime Customer Value Formula

So now we know roughly how much will our customers will be spending with us. But that’s not actually our money, isn’t it? That’s the revenue, not our profit. So let’s step a little further and take into account our profit margin and double check the figures, by using the Customers expenditures per visit (s) and the Purchase cycle (c) value.

Remember – this is the not the final form – we will still have to think of a future projection of our lifetime customer value. However, the second formula would be this:

Extended lifetime customer value
Extended lifetime customer value

3. Projected Lifetime Customer Value Formula

This formula has it all – Gross Margin per Customer Lifespan (m), discount rate (i), retention rate (r). It is also one of the oldest and simplest ways to estimate customer value (well, as simple as it can be).

Let’s have a look at it:

Projected Lifetime Customer Value
Projected Lifetime Customer Value

You can see there that this is directly proportional with two of the values. First – Gross Margin per Customer Lifespan (how much will you profit from your customers during their lifespan as customers). Second – retention rate. So do what you can to extend your customers lifespan and the retention rate.

So now we have three formulas. Each outputs a different value. Which is the right one?

Answer: all. And none. Remember – this is an estimate. The best you can do with these three is find an average and try to stick with it. Once you have a number you now know how much should you be spending on your customers. You want an example? Head over to this info-graphic and see these formulas in action with a fine aroma of roasted coffee. Starbucks has a Lifetime Customer Value of $14099 so as long as its spending less than that to turn you into a customer and keep you one – they’re profitable.

What do I do with these figures and formulas?

What is LCV good for? First off – telling you which customer to keep and which not. When it comes to ecommerce data is anything but scarce. You have the info – now use it. Find out who are your best customers. Analyze your data, split customers into marketable groups and … action! Drop the marketing on unprofitable customers (that doesn’t mean you should treat them worse – just spend less on acquisition). Engage your profitable customers.

But be advised – you have to have a long enough timeframe to analyze data. Sometimes those negative LCV’s might turn out to grow in time. Use predictive analytics and extend your search to see where are your customers going, not just where they are right now.

If you enjoyed reading this post as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it go ahead and share it with those you know might want to read it. Comment on it. Like it. Anything as long as you can show me you wan’t to know more about it. Next stop – Customer Acquisition Land. How much, where and how would it be better to spend on new Customers.