Should You Open an Online Store?

Lighting Showrooms: Online Stores

Suzy Teele, Chief Operating Officer of SnapRetail – the creators of an online marketing and sales solution specifically for small retailers – outlines the key issues to consider from a technology, business, marketing, and sales perspective.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a little more than 6 percent of all retail sales occur online. That might not sound like much, but that number has been steadily increasing.  “It grows in double digits every year, and it hasn’t flattened out yet,” noted Suzy Teele, COO of SnapRetail, in a seminar she presented during the Las Vegas Market. Overall, online sales grew by 12 percent and the Census Bureau estimates it will reach 17 percent this year.

Many brick-and-mortar store owners are now considering actively selling on their Web sites versus having a static Web page that simply lists the store hours, address, and phone number.  There are many reasons why a small retailer might want to start selling the products they carry online. Some retailers want to make the jump into Internet sales to stay current with their competition, which these days can include flash sites, big box stores’ Web sites, mega-etailers such as Amazon, and social media sites such as Instagram and Houzz.

tip 1.  Define Your Goals

“People don’t think enough about the ‘why,’” Teele stated. Determine what you hope to accomplish by having an online presence. Maybe you simply want to offer in-store pick up for the convenience of customers who prefer to shop at night or hours when the store is closed. Or maybe your inventory isn’t very deep and showing more products online than you carry in the showroom provides you with a broader assortment. Having an active Web site can also be an effective way to increase engagement with your loyal customers.

tip 2. Create Your Budget

Start-up costs vary widely based on the sales method you select. “You have to build things like credit card fees or software fees into your cost structure,” Teele advised. The other aspect to watch is inventory. “If items are out of stock all the time on your Web site, people will stop visiting your site just as they’d stop coming into your store if they experienced the same thing,” she said.

tip 3. Where to Sell

“If you have a presence on Amazon or eBay, they’re making an investment in having you there,” Teele stated. “You also have more competition and people will be comparing you to others on price and shipping charges. If customers do not have a relationship with you, then they will just pick the store offering the lowest price with the highest amount of stars [positive rating].”

Another option is to work with a niche marketplace online such as Etsy or Artfire. “That way, you’re not competing with as many stores as you would be on Amazon,” she explained. Other options include going to a source that specializes in e-commerce or creating your own e-marketplace. “Just know that it is much harder to manage an online store without a POS system in place,” she cautioned.

Since June 2013, more online sales have come from consumers using their mobile phones or tablets than with a PC. While evaluating this selling method (called m-commerce), take a look at how the products you are selling look on a cell phone. “If you have hired someone to build a Web site for you, ask if it will be ‘responsive’ — which means it adapts the size to suit the device the site is being viewed on,” Teele noted.

“An easy way to test out e-commerce is to dabble with social media,” she said. “Facebook just announced that it will be trying out a ‘Buy It’ button soon, and a lot of people are already using Instagram to buy things. There are limitations to selling this way, but it’s something to think about,” Teele commented.

tip 4. Keep Your Content Current

One thing that retailers must realize when maintaining their Web site is that it takes time to make updates. “If you want people to come to your site frequently, you have to keep your content current for SEO (search engine optimization) purposes as well as for organic searches,” Teele noted.

tip 5.  Create Policies

Before you have your Web site go live, determine what your key policies will be. Are you doing your own drop shipping, or are you going to partner with a fulfillment center?  If you want to sell to the world, you will have some shipping and currency issues.

“You have to let customers know whether or not they can buy from you,” Teele remarked. “How will you deal with returns? The big stores have figured it out, but smaller stores have to think about how to handle it. Will it match your bricks-and-mortar policy regarding refunds and returns? If you have a beautiful lamp and there’s only one, but it’s damaged in shipping, what will be your policy on that? If you don’t handle it well, people will talk about it online because that’s what social media is about.”

tip 6. Set an Advertising Budget

“You have to have an advertising budget,” Teele advised. “And if you’re not the lowest price online – because that’s what people will notice when they research an item online – then you need to do extra promotion.”

When coming up with good key words for your advertising, listen to the words people are using to describe what they’re looking for in your store. “The more frequently you use the same words your customers are using, the more you will be easier to find when they search,” Teele said. “Cross-promote your site. If you are using social media, tell people that you have new content or products on the Web site.

“Don’t forget about email when doing your promotions,” Teele commented, adding, “Email is still the number one driver of online business. Keep gathering and adding customer email addresses to your list.”

Parting Thoughts

“You have to think about your Web site as a “real” store and not a part-time endeavor,” Teele noted.
“You have to monitor it regularly and be responsive.
If you don’t do that, you will lose customers.”

If inventory is your biggest hurdle, consider how well each product sells in your brick-and-mortar store, plus how many other sites are offering the same thing. Teele also suggested cautious retailers start off by offering your best-sellers.  “I don’t want to scare anyone from selling online. I just want to give small retailers a playbook to help them compete,” she said.

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