Online retailers are doing business in the era of the empowered shopper, a very competitive environment that pits massive omnichannel retail enterprises against even the smallest of family-run, garage-based sellers.
Shopping has fundamentally changed in just a generation. As recently as the 1980s, retailers effectively owned the shopping experience. The customer could purchase only what was offered at nearby brick-and-mortar stores, during “normal” business hours, at the price dictated to them.
Shopping has fundamentally changed in just a generation. As recently as the 1980s, retailers effectively owned the shopping experience.
Consumer research was also limited. Product specifications were found in magazine ads or on the side of the retail box. Product recommendations came either word-of-mouth or from store associates.
This is a significant contrast from the retail shopping experience customers enjoy in 2015.
Product information is plentiful. Any shopper with a mobile device or computer has access to manufacturer websites, product videos, and product reviews. Price comparison can be done in moments on Google, Bing, a parade of price-comparison services, and by visiting a retailer’s website.
The customer can purchase nearly any product imaginable, at any time of the day, at the lowest available price.
The retailers that best serve these empowered shoppers should enjoy success. This, however, begs the question: How does an online retailer, particularly a small or mid-sized retailer with relatively fewer resources, serve empowered shoppers and compete with massive stores?
Prove Your Products, Services Are a Value
Although it has been pointed out clearly that empowered shoppers can search for the lowest price available for a particular product, it is possible to compete not only on price, but also on overall value.
Earlier in ecommerce’s evolution, it was a popular tactic on Ebay, Amazon, and similar marketplaces to offer products at ridiculously low prices, and then overcharge for shipping. This worked for a time, because the marketplaces would often show sellers with lower offer prices first on results pages. In many cases, the final price — the product price plus shipping — might have been much higher.
Eventually, marketplaces began showing the final cost on results pages, since the final purchase price was more accurate and more important.
In a similar way, empowered shoppers are typically looking for the best value for a product, including product price, shipping costs, delivery time, return options, on-site experience, subscription options, or even their relationship with the retailer.
To earn sales, prove that your products and your services are a real value.
Sell Long-tail, Hard-to-get Products, Too
Small and mid-sized ecommerce businesses are at their most vulnerable when they must compete head-to-head with large, respected retail enterprises for the sale of identical or commodity products.
Those same small and mid-sized ecommerce businesses may have a competitive advantage when they offer unique, long-tail, and hard-to-get products.
Recently, the United Parcel Service and trend-tracking firm comScore completed their fourth annual UPS Pulse of the Online Shopper report, which surveyed 5,100 qualified American shoppers in January and February 2015. This report found that:
- 93 percent had bought from small retailers;
- 61 percent had purchased from a small retailer because it offered unique products;
- 49 percent bought because they could not find a product elsewhere;
- 26 percent purchased because of a broader product assortment.
What’s more, shoppers were willing to pay more, spend more on shipping, and wait longer for relatively hard-to-find items.
Finally, shoppers purchasing a hard-to-find item may also buy other products, like the identical or commodity items described above.
Build Lasting Relationships
Shoppers have their favorite brands, products, and stores, and their relationships to these are strong enough to overcome price, delivery times, or other competitive challenges.
What’s more, retailer-to-customer relationships are often the result of the retailer being useful, in one way or another, to the buyer. In the ecommerce context, this typically means providing a unique shopping experience, offering more than just products (think content marketing), and giving great customer service.
As an example, in 2011 Nordstrom earned a significant amount of positive publicity and a life-long customer when it helped Lisa Shaw, a customer in North Carolina, recover a diamond that fell from her wedding ring. Shaw had been trying on clothing when the diamond fell off, unnoticed. The next day, she returned to look for the gem, and received lots of help from Nordstrom employees, who eventually went through vacuum cleaner bags to recover the stone.
“I tell everybody the store,” Shaw said. “I don’t shop anywhere else for my clothes, makeup, hosiery, shoes…everything comes from Nordstrom’s.”
Remove Obstacles from the Purchase Path
Empowered shoppers may know quite a lot about what and how they want to buy, so that sometimes online retailers simply need to remove obstacles from the purchase path, clear out anything that gets in the way of making a sale when a shopper is ready to buy.
For example, UPS and comScore found that 44 percent of the shoppers surveyed had abandoned an online shopping cart simply because they had only wanted to see the total cost to compare with some other site’s or store’s prices.
Savvy online retailers might do a couple things to address this behavior. First, show the all-in cost — including shipping — on each product detail page. Second, consider offering a low price guarantee, so that if a shopper does load an item in the cart, he is more likely to complete the purchase.
Similarly, many shoppers will not add anything to a cart if the site is not promoting some form of free shipping. Thus, it may be a good idea to offer free shipping with some minimum purchase.
Know Your Customers
Large retailers are using Big Data to customize the empowered shopper’s retail experience, and to a great extent, small retailers also need to know specifically who customers are and provide personalized offers and experiences.
Competing on personalization and customer experience can require some software development or the need for customer data-collection services like Google Analytics, IBM Watson Analytics, Canopy Labs, Qualtrics, or similar. But, for many small and mid-sized ecommerce businesses, knowing who customers are can be much more personal.
Your business may be able to recognize shoppers on a human level, without necessarily having a lot of additional software.
Imagine, for example, that the person who packs boxes at your business recognizes an order from a frequent shopper. This shopper has paid for a two-day shipping service, rather than using free shipping, which is his normal behavior. Unfortunately, it is Friday, and this particular two-day service won’t arrive until Monday. So your packer, upgrades the order for overnight, Saturday delivery simply because he know the shopper.