For those not living under a rock, it should be blindingly obvious — for better or for worse — that the pandemic has accelerated the move to e-commerce. And like it or not, retailers that fail to follow the curve risk being left behind.
LOOK AT THE DATA
According to the May 2020 IMRG Capgemini Online Retail Index, the pandemic, in April 2020, its early stages, led to a 23.8% rise in online retail compared to the previous year as the high streets were forcibly shut down.
The point is driven home by the Retail Gazette which noted, when commenting on a July 2020 report by Alvarez & Marsal and Retail Economics, that “17.2 million British consumers — about 25 per cent of the country’s total population of 66.6 million — plan to make permanent changes to the way they shop.” Further, the story said that “consumers who perceive the risk of Covid-19 to be very high are almost four times more likely to shift their shopping habits in the long-term.”
We only have to look at data from the Office for National Statistics to see the overall direction of travel. In December 2006, online took just 2.5% of all retail sales. By December 2010 that figure stood at 8.5%. That percentage rose to 14.1% in December 2015 and 31.4% in December 2020. The point made, what do smaller firms need to do to join the online bandwagon?
Before answering the question, it should be recognised that Small and Mid-size Enterprises (SMEs) face a number of challenges that the corporates do not. The largest of these is not possessing the expertise to join in. And even then, if they can get a leg up and are able to make sales online and fulfil orders, the next hurdle to jump is how to garner attention in what is a very crowded marketplace. One thing is certain: SMEs won’t have the budgets that corporates can deploy to buy in custom.
THERE ARE OPTIONS
But just because the ‘big boys’ seem to have much of the market sewn up doesn’t mean that the independent has nowhere to go. In fact, there are plenty of options and they needn’t be horrifically expensive.
The most obvious place to start is to have an e-commerce site designed specifically for the business. It’ll no doubt be effective, assuming it’s been well designed and marketed, but it won’t come cheap.
According to expertmarket.co.uk, a basic SME website without e-commerce may cost between £500 and £1,000 while an e-commerce site with e-commerce tools, order management tools, delivery tracking, and live chat could cost up to £2,500, if not more. And for a truly bespoke site, the design can cost up to £10,000.
On top of that is the cost of an SSL certificate to add a level of security to a website that processes transactions (up to £250/year), hosting the site (up to £350/month), and content updates (up to, say, £60/month).
But there are alternatives that require less capital outlay and offer a faster point of entry and they all revolve around using a third-party platform that is integrated into the business offering.
The good news is that these platforms — and merchantmachine.co.uk, for example, lists 21 of them — allow businesses to build their own online shop via templates that are provided, and which can be customised according to need. In exchange for a regular fee, the platforms provide all of the technical functionality while leaving a trader to do what they do best — sell goods.
As noted, there are many platforms to choose from, but according to a report on startups.co.uk, six stood out as being best for SMEs to get on the ladder, with three getting top scores. Using test methodology that grouped results into a number of elements (customer score, design and functionality, help and support, sales features, value for money, and website features), the report recommended Wix as a “great all-rounder” and excellent value for money. Shopify came in with a mention in dispatches since it offered “full optimisation with a full arsenal of top-quality sales features.” And Squarespace received an honourable mention as it offered “maximum creative control.”
One thing the report noted is that there is no perfect solution and before plumping for a platform, the different offerings should be tested with a free trial or with a free version. On this, Wix and Weebly offer a money back guarantee on a subscription; BigCommerce, GoDaddy, and Shopify all offer free trials. As for cost, Wix starts at £10.10/month, Shopify at $9/month, and Squarespace is £13/month.
LOST IN THE ETHER?
With so much competition it’s easy for a small firm to get lost in the chatter that forms the world of online. For those that are concerned or bothered about this, a workaround is to piggyback off the brand name of others and to sell on their platform. Amazon and eBay are well known for this.
Let’s look at Amazon. It allows others to use its brand and technology to sell through its marketplace in exchange for a fee. There are two types of sellers: casual and professional. The former can sell 35 items per month or less and pay only a completion and referral fee for each item sold. Professional sellers, on the other hand, can sell 35 items or more per month, can sell a greater range of products, and can use bulk listing tools to make it easier to sell in volume. There’s a monthly fee plus the individual completion and referral fees.
By paying £25/month, sellers can place products on all five of Amazon’s EU marketplaces and can reach millions of active users.
As for eBay, a shop there allows sellers to showcase their auction listings in their own customisable ‘storefront’. Also, items can be listed for much longer than with a normal consumer eBay account and businesses registered with eBay receive discounts. One thing to note about eBay, customers often search for unique or hard-to-find items. In other words, the more specialised the products, the better.
eBay’s costs vary from £19.99/month for basic shop, to £59.99/month for a featured shop, and £349.99/month for an anchor shop where sellers want maximum exposure.
Yet another option to consider is selling through websites such as Not On The High Street or Etsy. The former has more than 5,000 small, creative retailers from across the UK and has seen its sales rise during the pandemic. While still growing, its values might sit better with an SME retailer compared to an e-commerce juggernaut.
No matter what an independent chooses, the reality is that more shopping is done online than ever before. And given time, the change will gather pace; small businesses can’t afford to be left behind.
Buying online is easy and growing rapidly.
TIPS FOR SUCCESS
Pick the site’s theme before e-commerce is added
Some digital tools offer free themes that can be customised for the e-commerce part of a website. Logically, it makes sense for the theme to fit with the style and navigation of any existing site so that the new e-commerce section appears integrated. Themeforest is one that offers generic themes.
CHOOSE THE PRODUCTS TO BE
A trader may have a large stocklist but it’s not practical or economic to post everything. Similarly, it may take an age and seem overly daunting to try to put everything online in one go. It’s far simpler to start with, say, the top 50 best sellers and then add more over time. Sellers should ensure that text and imagery are clear, engaging, and most importantly, accurate, else they can expect to have returns. If a plain white background may help sell an item, it’s worth looking at using pixelz.com. Prices start at $9/month and $1.45 an image.
INDEPENDENT PAGE URLs
Another tip is to opt for an e-commerce shopping tool that allows for independent page addresses and the ability to use a company’s own domain and IP address. It’s more professional and much better for recognition in search engines. In other words, sellers should seek to use something akin to joebloggs.com/shop instead of wix.com/joebloggs.
HELP THE SEARCH ENGINES
Using independent meta descriptions for text and images which appears below a page title in the search results can strongly influence whether customers click through. Similarly, it helps to give every image a descriptive ALT tag which defines it; this will help Google’s image search engine rank it higher.
Allied to this is the benefit of having a blog. Few sites will list truly unique products so it’s important to make the site’s content stand out for Google to rank it — and a blog can help do this. It makes sense to choose an e-commerce platform that, as standard, offers the ability to blog.
Similarly, visitors should be able to leave product reviews as it’s another way to add more (user-generated) content to the website. Not only are reviews helpful to others looking at making a purchase (possible less so for a seller with a poorly received product), but they also help Google and other search engines catalogue a site. Shopify and others offer tools to add reviews. All reviews should be monitored, but not censored, looking for content that may be inappropriate or which may offend.
Social media may be the devil’s own work for some, but for others, it’s an easy way to share content and products on a website to friends and others. Sellers should add buttons to pages to facilitate this. AddThis and ShareThis include all the popular social media platforms.
ADD A PAYMENT SYSTEM
It might seem obvious, but to get paid requires a seller to be approved for a merchant account from their bank and to have a payment processor to handle the transactions with credit card companies. It’s possible to utilise the facilities offered by a shopping platform or alternatively, sign up to PayPal and Google Wallet.