By Seb de Lemos, Vidahost.
For retailers operating in the digital age, just being online is no longer enough to remain competitive. A retailer now needs to make the most of every click to its website and deliver an amazing customer experience to keep margins healthy.
But while the rise of online retail has undoubtedly created more competition from all sides, it has also levelled the playing field for smaller players. With the right approach, any small online business can now grow to become a successful retailer and expand to serve a global base of customers. However, to do so, they need to take the right steps to ensure they convert as many site visits into sales as possible, and deliver a consistent experience that will keep customers coming back for more.
Being available for the 'Always On' customer
Unlike in the bricks and mortar world of commerce, there is no closing time for online retailers. They must ensure their sites are available around the clock, as their customers could come from anywhere in the world, at any time. Having a robust infrastructure, that won't fall over at times of increased traffic or deliver a slow shopping experience, is therefore vital.
To enable this, infrastructure needs to be effectively managed across the whole 24/7 cycle; it's no good if your website falls down when you have a rush of customer demand at 4am in the morning and you don't notice because you are in bed. Making the most of these periods of increased demand could take you to your next step as a business, so ensuring your site is continually available is a crucial first step.
Have a cunning plan
Every good retailer knows how to grab their customers' attention with clever product placement, special offers and jumping on trends; from the green grocer plying their produce in the street, to the proud shop owner immaculately displaying their wares. A good marketing plan is the best starting point to launching a successful online business, and is essential in driving customers to your site. Having a calendar of upcoming events and red letter days can help with this planning. For example, key events like Father's Day will create peaks in demand for certain types of products that you can take advantage on. Keywords like 'aftershave', 'socks', etc. will be searched for by customers more than at any time of the year.
Using these Search Engine Optimisation terms in the descriptions of landing pages on your site can encourage shoppers to click through to your page to purchase the items they are after. Essentially, the website and its marketing should be geared up to make the most of all seasonal and temporary peaks in demand. This can allow retailers to maximise potential revenues during the period and drive customer acquisition, which could compensate for slow trading periods at other times of the year and determine your success.
Understand the customer journey
Once you have set out your marketing plan and started driving customers to your site, the next step is learning more about your users to convert site visits into real sales. Analytics tools can help to better understand your customer base – their browsing habits, product preferences and how many make purchases – and allow you to optimise your site accordingly.
Being able to see what customers are doing, where they are visiting from and where they are going to after visiting your site can also allow you to better understand the customer journey and encourage as much "stickiness" to your site as possible. For example, sending targeted discounts and promotions to customers just as they are clicking away from your page to increase the chance of them making a purchase.
Social media can also be a very useful free tool – monitoring keywords and hashtags, engaging with customers and capitalising on celebrity endorsements to drive traffic to your site. This kind of knowledge will help you more accurately convert site visits to online purchases, and map your marketing budget to real sales.
Punch above your weight
For smaller businesses looking to compete with larger, more established competitors. Using the scalability, availability and pay-as-you-go nature of the cloud, with the expertise of a good hosting provider, can mean any small retailer can be up and running in 10 minutes, ready to start selling to customers right away. Using cost effective and simple cloud technologies, the barriers to entry are so low as to almost be non-existent.
All a retailer needs to become a living online business is enough money to cover basic website costs and a bank account to take payments. On the other hand, if you are a retailer with an existing website you can also benefit from moving to the cloud - it is relatively simple to migrate your site on to a bigger and better platform with minimum fuss and you no longer need to be "locked in" to any one website provider.
The ecommerce tools available are also becoming more advanced and are no longer just the preserve of the biggest online retailers. Whether you are a fledgling online business or an established retailer that has been around for years, all organisations can now benefit from industry leading ecommerce tools used by some of the most successful retailers, with just one click. For example, any business can now use Magento for managing online orders, CRM and fulfilment, to create an excellent customer experience.
Get set, GO!
To conclude, the evolution to becoming a successful online retail business is now more seamless and realistic to achieve than ever before. The hallmarks of success will be 24/7 availability, having a solid marketing plan, understanding your customer base, and using the power of the cloud and industry leading tools to deliver an exceptional customer experience. With a considered approach and the right tools at your disposal, any retailer can now make the leap to becoming a successful online business.