5 Things Online Retailers Could Learn from the Game of Thrones

The Starks. The Lannisters. Dragons. Swords. Power. Blood. Sex. Aaaand violence. I guess this pretty much sums up a slightly superficial yet short description of the Game of Thrones series.

starks

Now if you’ve opened up your Facebook or Twitter account today, you definitely  know something happened. Last evening HBO aired a certain episode called “The Red Wedding”. I will not spoil it for you, if you’ve not seen it yet, but it was a pretty shocking episode. Blood and death ruled the storyline and social media reactions quickly followed.

Just to get an overview of how much impact Game of Thrones had, here’s a tweet from musician Ed Sheeran that pretty much sums it up:

Yeah, things got pretty violent. Shocking actually. And that got me thinking. Not the usual things one might ponder on but something closer to my professional interests. As the credits rolled in, I found myself wondering what could online retailers take away from the GoT Universe? I pretty much narrowed it down to 5 things (there is still a certain limit one can take away from blood, death and violence). Here they are:

5. Form alliances

Some alliances are better than others.
Some alliances are better than others.

You are not alone. Of course, you might have a strong company, you may not need partners right now and yes, others can sometimes slow you down.

However, you never know when you might need to launch a new product or face a strong competitor. That’s when allies such as industry bloggers, influential community members, thematic forums or websites will prove really useful.

Develop your customer community. Grow a company blog. Sponsor thematic websites. Maybe all of these. You never know when but your allies will come in handy.

4. Always be on the watch for challengers.

Retail is a fast moving industry. Online retail moves even faster. You might be the king of the hills today only to find out your market share has dropped faster than you could say “Winter is coming”.

If you’re not the market leader you probably want to be. That’s human nature. Also – online retail nature. With hard work, creativity, and a couple of other things you too can reach the “Iron Throne” you’ve battled for. Once you’re there you need to keep an eye for certain news that might predict a strong challenger:

  • a more flexible business model
  • better products
  • better marketing
  • better team

3. Technology can save you. Almost magically.

What is your company's Wildfire

If you’ve been watching the Game of thrones you might remember season’s two finale. Peter Dinklage’s character, Tyrion Lannister leads an outnumbered army against a potentially disastrous siege. His best choice is to use the “Wildfire” – a magical substance that acts as a very powerful and persistant explosive (consider sorcery to be the equivalent of technology in the Game of Thrones universe).

With the help of the Wildfire, Tyrion manages to save his castle and his life.

Now, just like the movies, technology is probably lurking somewhere around you. Be sure to reach out and use the best available technologies if you want to stay competitive.

4. Keep a look out for the new king product.

There is probably no secret to you by now that some products perform way better than others. For a limited time. Than some other products gain your customers best favors. And than others and so on.

Keep a look out for the king product. There is always a struggle on the market and while you can marginally influence the outcome you cannot predict it. It is really not up to you to decide what your customers want but rather what they can choose from.

Be sure to treat your king product or products royally and they will repay you. How can you do that? Here are some tips:

  • be sure to make it easy for your customers to reach your king product
  • bring on new customers by advertising your best sellers
  • if you don’t have one already – create a special products category

Remember though: different customers may be on the look out for different king products. Try to customize your online shopping experience according to each customer’s needs. With the help of technology.

And finally …

5. Kill your products.Well … not all.

A fairly iconic scene in the Game of Thrones Series. The death of Ned Stark.

Just because you have a virtually unlimited storage space doesn’t mean you really have to keep all products in your catalogue.

Some products are … well … underachievers. They cannot be kings. Or queens, or barons, or soldiers. They are not wanted. Your customers don’t buy them. Maybe they don’t even want to see them.

So – test your products and clean up the mess. You can handle an limited amount of products. Your customers want a limited amount of products, curated only for them. With the rise of flash sales focused on certain types of individuals online catalogues seem to be getting smaller and more focused on customer’s needs.

Don’t be afraid to cut out underperforming products. You get more time with your king products. Do the math – more focus on the best sellers, less on the underachievers. You can only improve.

The Top 7 Most Important Factors in Building (Better) Ecommerce Companies

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.

ClickNow

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:

  1. Choice of Products and Product Display
  2. Stocks availability
  3. Pricing
  4. Shipping
  5. Customer Care
  6. Search (yes, search)
  7. Innovation

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.

[See how these factors connect to create Omnichannel Retail]

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:

Amazon tracks, stores, analyzes and than recommends based on that recommendation products you are likely to buy.
Amazon tracks, stores, analyzes and than recommends based on that recommendation products you are likely to buy.

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:

  • shoes
  • accessories
  • bags

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.

3.Pricing

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.

4. Shipping

Here's a box from ASOS. It's branded, easy to use and it usually carries things people love.
Here’s a box from ASOS. It’s branded, easy to use and it usually carries things people love.

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.

Zappos has turned great customer service from a cost to a competitive advantage
Zappos has turned great customer service from a cost to a competitive advantage

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.

6. Search

Amazon's search engine, A9.
Amazon’s search engine, A9.

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.

7. Innovation

kindle dx
The Kindle DX

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.

Conclusion

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.