Ever thought what happens behind the curtains before a new product hits the shelf? Or what makes customers decide they love product A but definitely hate product B, although they are almost identical? Or what makes great products … well … great?
Many have and there is no clear answer to these questions. What works when Apple launches a music player may not work when Microsoft does it (Remember Zune?). There are many variables involved and no matter the size of your R&D budget, sometimes things are not going to go right.
But there’s only one way to see if the product is really fit for the market. That way used to be simple and a bit risky. Teams including marketing, product development, engineering and manufacturing experts would dream, design and build products. They would test the products on selected customer groups and if the results would look good, they would push the product to the market.
However even involving budgets, experts, consumer insights and marketing bucks, sometimes products flop.
Two things changed this: crowd-sourcing and crowd-founding. Together they’ve formed a type of customer experience previously unknown: the pretail.
Testing the waters with crowd-sourcing and crowd-founding
In the past, teams were involved in trying to guess what customers would want. Now we can just go ahead and ask the them.
Pretailing is a term describing any activity introducing customers to brands or products, before the retail process. It assumes that using crowd-founding sites such as Kickstarter, inventors and innovators can test their concept before involving big budgets. Essentially they are asking potential buyers to invest their dollar-power in their product.
This, in turn, creates an experience previously unknown to the consumer. The consumer is effectively buying into a vision. Pretailing creates a new type of sales channel that works before the product is even manufactured. Unlike traditional retail, this type of commerce can shed light on what the market wants at any given time.
Online stores such as Quirky, Threadless or Japan-based Muji have one thing in common. They use their communities to find the right ideas and products to design and develop. Quirky is focused on inventing cool gadgets, Threadless leverages its designer community to create t-shirts and Muji sells home&deco products designed by the consumers.
They all engage in pretailing. By tapping into the collective minds of their communities they can ask for the type of products most customers would purchase. Before they manufacture and sell, they ask what to manufacture and sell. This in turn creates a sense of belonging to the community for the customer. For the retailer, it decreases the risk of manufacturing and stocking up on lousy products.
Crowd-founding is another way of tapping into the market and pretailing. We all know Kickstarter but other, more product-oriented crowd founding platforms fare even better for this concept.
The results are amazing. With unlimited creativity comes an unlimited supply of innovation. And by tapping into a large market of early-adopters, only the products that are really fit for distribution get funded and survive.
Big retailers have picked up on the trend and are now using pretailing to test new products and improve their logistics to fit the estimated demand. Apple, for example is one of the companies that showcases products before they are available in retail stores, interacting with developers and customers to improve the experience.
Pretailing is a thing of the crowds
Beyond the crowd-founding and crowd-sourcing, pretailing can come from anything involving large numbers of potential customers. By tapping into online traces, retailers can get insights on potentially succesful products.
Pretailing can start with a simple research with Google Trends. It can be an analysis on the search trends on your own web store.
It can just as well be an overview of the most popular trends on Instagram. For example Crane & Canopy releases new high quality duvets basing their decisions on Pinterest and social media trends.
The conclusion is that in this highly competitive market, retailers need to engage their customers before they start the retail process. Pretailing means tapping into the wisdom of the crowds and extracting the perfect products before competitors do. It is not only a matter of product development but a matter of understanding the customer and providing the best experience on the market.
Online commerce is growing fast and innovation is key to staying relevant on the market. The simple catalog model is still here but for how long? With customers in need of customized products and personalized offers, with omnichannel gaining momentum, it’s the new and innovative startups that are defining tomorrow’s shopping standards.
To show just how important innovation is in online retail, this post will showcase three web-only business models that proved successful. Each of these companies has been listed by Internet Retailer as a top-growth retailer.
Let’s start with …
eSalon.com – custom formulated hair color products
Year on Year Growth: 200.3%
You know how cosmetics and hair care companies list so many hair coloring products? Yeah, that’s because hair color is quite a personal choice. So eSalon has made sure it stays this way. They provide a special customization form where customers can offer personal info, relevant to building the perfect hue. Hair coloring delicate and often hard to do perfect. So there really is a lot of data you have to fill in before you get the right product but I believe it is worth it.
The company’s main target are women and do it yourself hair coloring is not an easy process. Help from expert that can combine and blend multiple ingredients in one perfect hue is great. But eSalon doesn’t have to do this blending too often. Once the hair color is just the right fit and the customer is happy with it, it will probably keep coming back.
Dollar Shave Club – Shaving Blades delivered monthly
Year on year growth: 242.10%
Here they are – shaving blades. It’s the one item most men have to use daily. Dollar Shave Club manufactures shaving accessories and personal care products for men. Their main product: shaving blades, sent each month to customers, for 1-9$ subscription fee.
Blue Apron – Recipes and recipe ingredients delivered at home
Year on year growth: 550.2%
Blue Apron is the fastest growing US retailer, with a 550% growth from last year. Any kind of business that grows five times in one year has to be a pretty amazing concept. And it is.
Think of Blue Apron as IKEA for the kitchen. Cooked meals get a lot less expensive when they’re purchased as ingredients. Basically a web web grocer, Blue Apron has decided to take a special approach. By showing how ingredients fit together with recepies, they were able to increase the number of products purchased by customers.
A great concept like Blue Apron has to have a great team behind it. That team is made up of a previous VC investor, a previously technical architect and of course … a chef. A recipe for success, if i might say so.
When it comes to ecommerce most of us live in a “Fog of War”. What, never heard about it?
What is “Fog of War”?
In military strategy the term shows the uncertainty one has to deal with when it comes to battle area, enemy forces, enemy positioning and others. The “Fog of War” can easily be described as a lack of visibility or understanding of engagement conditions. The less you know, the thicker the fog.
In a given “Fog of War” situation, you have to maximize intel by diplomatic, open-source or secret intelligence so as to prepare as best as possible to engage the enemy or prepare for any incoming attack. What is definitely not an option is just sit around and expect the enemy to attack.
The basic thing you need to take away is that when in dark, you have to shine some light by exploring nearby terrain and options.
There is no success without failure. But failure is definitely not success.
All in all – mistakes or failures are pretty useless. I mean – of course, Thomas Edison is famous for saying “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work” when referring to his inability to find a decent light bulb.
Unfortunately for most of us trying to innovate our way to success, what this quote fails to mention is that by that moment Edison was successful enough to fund those 10,000 failures.
The fact is failure is still failure. Mistakes are mistakes. There is nothing great or noble in making mistakes. If possible – don’t make them. But if you do – mark them as not to be repeated and than leave them behind.
No one remembers Columbus for his 17 years trying to get a couple of lousy boats to cross over the ocean while NOT discovering America. No one remembers Einstein for his brilliant carrier as a patent clerk while NOT improving his Theory of Relativity. Everybody gets credit for the things that are NOT mistakes or failures.
However, along the way to success, while discovering and gathering informations to see through the Fog of War, we will make mistakes. Actually most of the things we will be doing will be mistakes. That means we are trying. That means we are searching and while searching, at some point we will come across our objective and then, just then, we will be ready to learn from our mistakes. Not before, because …
We, humans, don’t “learn from our mistakes” because our brain is not built that way
Apparently our brain remembers short term memories that lead to correct actions and forgets useless details that just don’t work. According to Earl Miller, professor of neuroscience at MIT, “it is reward, rather than its absence, that is driving learning.”
So while trying to find out how to outsell your competitor remember what really counts: the times you got something right. That’s when you and your team will be learning the most important things. And you need to learn and discover new things because …
There is a world of possibilities when it comes to ecommerce
Netonomy.NET being an ecommerce blog, I wrote this post to encourage you to try new things, to innovate and allow yourself the right to make mistakes. However – don’t settle for anything but success.
Watching Amazon, Ebay, Asos.com and all other big online retailers is not enough. Do your own thing. Try, fail, succeed. The next big thing is just around the corner, if you’re willing to go through some Fog of War.
eCommerce has really picked up pace in the last ten years and is on its way to becoming a really serious competitor to classic retail. Needless to say, many companies jump the ecommerce wagon. Some are internet savvy, some are retailers with many years of experience or, in the most fortunate case, both. However, that most fortunate case is usually rare. The internet and the classic commerce are still, for most of us, worlds apart.
The main reason ecommerce is still a pretty damn hard thing to do is it takes a lot of know-how regarding both commerce and the internet. When starting or expanding an ecommerce operation you will be faced with decision regarding management and sales platform, marketing (“do I do Social Media, should I go for Search Marketing or maybe Affiliate marketing?”) but also more real-world issues such as “What are the products I will be selling?”, “How do I store these products?” or “How is my product going to reach my client?”.
While there are many, many variables and data you will be faced with, you still need to keep an overview on the most important factors that will make your ecommerce business successful or not. Here are the most important 7:
Choice of Products and Product Display
Search (yes, search)
As you notice I have not mentioned marketing. Marketing makes a difference when all those above are working well together. That is not to say marketing is not important. It is. Unfortunately marketing cannot save you when your store isn’t performing its base functions.
Further on, keep in mind that as an eCommerce company you are first and foremost a technology company. If you are a classic retailer this part will be the hardest thing to wrap your head around. You use technology to deliver products at the best price and with the best customer care possible. As such you need to stay constantly focused on market changes (your product market) and technology changes (think how important search engines are for online-first businesses) and adapt those changes to your 7 pillars of ecommerce excellence, as follows:
1. Choosing the Product Range and Product Display
What makes Amazon such a great business? One might argue things like “Wide variety of products”, “Great prices”, “Fast delivery” or “Great customer experience”. All these, and probably more, are true. All these make Amazon the leader in US’ largest online retailers but I would like you to focus on the following screen:
What you see there is my recent history on Amazon (I am quite fond of eCommerce, as you’ve probably noticed). Now if you would be Amazon you could basically market anything to anyone (well, almost anything to almost anyone). Why? You can show your customer a version of your product choice based on his or her particular interest, particular history of browsing and buying.
So with Amazon basically each customer gets his or her own version of the store.
But you are not Amazon. You don’t have the same product choice, the same data, the same infrastructure. You will need to create a specific product choice and focus on your specific niche.
Ex.: Say customer X wants to buy a computer. Where would he go? Probably to an IT related online store. Say he needs to buy a mouse after he bought the computer. He would, if the first shopping experience was good, go to the same place and make an additional purchase.
If you are not Amazon you will need to make a clear choice regarding your product range. You cannot be a fashion retailer and also deliver groceries. It just doesn’t makes sense. It doesn’t make sense business wise and it doesn’t make any sense for your customer.
After you have chosen your product range you will need to expand it. Say you started by selling clothes. There are a few product categories that would go great with that type of products:
Once you got that settled you will notice that there are specific ways you will need to display your product. As a fashion retailer you will need models and show your customers how those clothes would look on them. Such a choice of display won’t make too much sense if you would be selling, say, laptops. No one actually cares how they look when typing, unless they own a Mac and they are typing in a Starbucks.
2. Stocks Availability
Picture this: you are shopping in your favorite brick and mortar store. You’ve just tried on a couple of jackets and you’ve found that one, great looking, discounted, jacket. You have it in your hands. You have the money. You head over to the cash register and take out your credit card. Surprisingly, even though you’ve spent the last 20 minutes searching for it, trying it on and then deciding to purchase it, the item is not actually in stock.
That is not very nice, isn’t it?
Customers feel tricked when they try to purchase something that is not actually in stock. That usually happens when your warehouse stocks system aren’t synced with your ecommerce site. It’s really frustrating and you need to make sure that never happens to your customers.
Key take away: Keep your stocks updated real time.
Pricing – how do you do it? Do you just go ahead for the smallest price possible? Should you rather adjust your price according to the market and the other competitors?
Pricing should take you in the shortest time to a profitable operation. The pricing operation is mostly an internal decision (the price should first depend on your OWN resources and costs) while still trying to keep up with the market. Here are several things you should consider while looking at your pricing options:
You will probably not turn a profit from the start. As such – focus on creating a competitive price that will, at some point help you turn profitable.
DO NOT go for the lowest price on the market. Try to earn customers by offering discounts, vouchers, having a great customer care and a great product range. Anything but the lowest price. That is always an unsuccessful choice. Of course – you will get a couple of customers but these are not really the customers you are looking for. Plus a low price usually means a very low profit or loss. It’s better to have a slow but steady increase in customer base than a fast increase that will, in time, bankrupt your business.
Keep in mind the operational costs. While most startups focus on technology and marketing costs, they usually overlook many operational costs such as staff, warehousing, shipment and others.
Think highest possible price instead lowest possible price. Keep in mind that you are not your marketing. While you may want to be seen as a low pricing company you need to maximize your profit. Find the best balance between profit and managing to stay competitive in the market.
Shipping is an important part in your business. Doh! It is, for best or for worse – the most important physical contact your customer has with your company, unless you also have brick-and-mortar stores. You should make the best of it.
Here are some ways of making a great impression with shipment:
Treat the delivery box as the most important part of your visual and physical identity. Because it is. Have a look in the right hand area at this ASOS box. It has a clean, functional design, it’s beautiful and people love receiving it. The experience is close to receiving a gift, as most have already paid for their purchases. Don’t spoil the experience.
One size shipping DOES NOT fit all. Adjust your shipping model to your market. If you are delivering groceries people will expect them as soon as possible (usually within 24 hrs) and are willing to pay to get this. If you are a discount shop people are willing to wait a little bit longer as long as they know they get a better deal.
If possible – offer free returns. It’s great when trying to build trust. People will think the pros and cons of buying from your web store and a free return is a great incentive.
5. Customer care
This is one of the most important pieces of building a strong, reliable eCommerce brand and, unfortunately, one of the hardest to manage.
While CRM (customer relationship management) systems and technologies have improved greatly, most of what your customers would call customer care still relies on people answering calls, people delivering merchandise, people in charge of packaging. People, people, people. Customer care is about bringing the right kind of people on board, making sure they understand what makes your company great and making sure they always do their best in handling customer needs.
It’s a hard thing to build. Good customer care is subjective. However, there are a couple of things you can do to improve your chances at keeping your customers happy and returning:
Build a culture around your customers. Make sure that anyone involved in your ecommerce operation knows how important it is to keep customers happy. After all, it’s not like jobs depend on it. Oh, wait. They do.
Make sure you track your customers purchase history and make this purchase history as clear as possible to your call center operators. You won’t be able to attain a perfect score. Just don’t ruin your best customers’ experience.
Don’t judge your customers. There are no “dumb questions”. There are no calls that take too long. After all, if Zappos can handle a 9 hours and 37 minutes phone call, you can spend a few extra minutes with those who buy your products.
In the end customer care is actually treating your customers friendly, polite and helpful. If you can manage that , you will build a great shopping experience.
While it could be a little awkward to add search, basically an ubiquitous and often overlooked eCommerce feature, it actually is one of the most important tools in helping your customer reach its desired product as fast as possible, without hassle.
How many items are listed on Amazon? Millions. There are so many products that Amazon decided that it didn’t need just a search engine “feature”, but a search engine program. At launch A9, Amazon’s Search platform, was rumored to be a competitor to Google but it turns out Amazon just wants to guide its customers as efficient as possible to the products they are looking for.
Don’t underestimate the importance of search. We live in a search-engine era where we need to find what we are looking for in matters of seconds. If your search feature doesn’t do that, maybe its time to work a little bit more on that.
Remember: as an eCommerce company, you are a technology company. I will say it again. You are a technology company. Get used to it. Now – as any technology company, you need not only keep up with market developments such as mobile commerce or social commerce, you need to lead the way.
The largest eCommerce companies lead by innovation. Weather it is Amazon’s Kindle, Ebay’s Market Place or even AliBaba.com’s online payment system, Alipay – they all innovated their way to the top and continue to develop to stay there.
These are the top 7 most important factors that make or brake eCommerce companies. Focus and improve each one of them but remember that commerce has always been about a) delivering products, b) at a great price, c) before and better than anyone else. It still is. We’ve just added a layer of technology on top of it.