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The new normal in e-commerce — How to sell more stuff online.

brand credibility from branding expertsThe COVID 19 pandemic has created a frenzy of activity in the e-commerce industry. One of my CPG clients saw a 550% increase in online sales – until they ran into supply chain issues and had to post “out of stock” on every item. The new normal for e-commerce is going to be huge.

The lockdown has created “Cyber Monday” levels of volume for three consecutive months. And even after we’re able to return to the malls, online sales will never go back down to pre-COVID levels. Every e-commerce site from Amazon to Aunt Matilda’s Potato Mashers will enjoy a piece of the online buying frenzy.

Last year, e-commerce sales in the U.S. rose 14% to $569 billion. This year’s growth could be as high as 50% in many categories. But most e-commerce businesses could get a bigger piece of the growing pie, if only they’d do something — anything — to differentiate themselves from pack.

A good place to start is with your target audience.

Besides a ridiculously low price, what do online shoppers want?

Most are looking for insight on a specific product category. Before they fill their online shopping cart they need more information. So they hunt and click for real stories about how your product might fit into their lives. They look for facts, reviews, videos, articles or any kind of credible content that helps them narrow their search.

But amazingly few e-commerce brands deliver any content at all that could be called useful or differentiating.

If you want to establish a successful e-commerce brand you have to do more than just copy your competitors. You can’t just cut and paste the same exact manufacturer’s blurb, the same photo and the same specs and expect more market share than anyone else. You have to differentiate your online store. Somehow…

You could offer a unique product mix.

Choose one main thing BNBrandingMost niched e-commerce sites offer the exact same products as their competitors. So maybe your new normal in ecommerce is a product mix that’s more carefully curated or even more niched.

You’ll never be able to compete with Amazon on breadth of offerings, so you might as well specialize.

But even if you could find something that your competitors don’t have, it’s not a sustainable advantage unless you have an exclusive arrangement with the manufacturer.

You could offer lower pricing.

One thing’s for sure, the new normal in e-commerce is going to involve a lot more competition. Drop-ship companies are springing up everywhere, and many of the new players will get caught in a race to the bottom when it comes to pricing.

Do you really want to be positioned as a low-price leader? Do you want to compete with WalMart.com? Is that really “on brand” for you, or are you more interested in providing quality products with good overall value?

Or you can have better content presented in your own, unique voice. That, you can do!

Even if you have basically the same product mix at the same price as your competition, you CAN differentiate yourself. All you have to do is customize your product pitches, improve your copy, and mix up the words a bit.

If you’re not doin that you’re not really an e-commerce retailer, you’re just a virtual warehouse.  Retailing, by definition, means selling, merchandising, and packaging up other people’s products into a unique buying environment. Brand building, by definition, means building loyalty and lots of repeat business.

Brick and mortar retailers like Nordstrom know all about that.

And let me tell you about another category of companies that applied wise retail thinking to a new delivery system.

Early in my career I wrote copy for Norm Thompson. Back then, in the days of J Peterman and Montgomery Ward,  there was a lot of competition among catalog companies. But Norm Thompson offered a highly differentiated buying experience.

We offered the best guarantee in the business, a meticulously curated collection of high-quality, high-margin products, and a unique tone of voice that resonated with Norm Thompson’s mature, upscale audience.

We wrote long, intelligent copy that told a story of both functionality and fashion. When the product called for a technical approach, we’d get technical… I remember writing a full page spread on the optics of Serengetti Driver sunglasses.

On other occasions it was pure fashion. We’d turn on the charm and use prose that harkened back to more chivalrous times.

The brand was Helpful. Heroic. Practical. Luxurious. Comfortable.

These weren’t just adjectives thrown in to boost our word count. They were themes on which we built compelling, product-driven stories.

The long narratives explained why the product felt so luxurious. Where the innovation came from. How a feature worked. And most importantly, what it all meant to the Norm Thompson customer.

It was the voice of the brand, and guess what? It worked. The conversion rates and sales-to-page ratios of the Norm Thompson catalog were among the highest in the industry. We routinely got 30% response rates on our direct mailings.

It’s tough to find anything remotely close in the on-line world. And unfortunately, Norm Thompson hasn’t maintained that unique voice in the e-commerce arena.

Here’s the new normal in e-commerce… More and more high dollar, high involvement purchases will be made online. And the role of the well-informed retail sales person is falling on the shoulders of the e-commerce entrepreneur.

Take ski boots, for example. Ski boots don’t exactly fit into the category of top on-line sellers. They aren’t impulse items that you need on a weekly basis. They’re heavy to ship. Most people prefer to try them on before buying. And returns on ski boots are quite common.

But on-line retailers could dramatically reduce returns simply by  explaining the single most important thing:

Fit.

No technical feature is as important as fit, and yet no website that I’ve found provides the simple problem-solving content that says: If you have peasant feet, try this make and model. If you have a high instep, try these. If you have a narrow foot, try these. If you have big calves, try these.

I were a ski boot retailer I’d focus on the pain ski boots can inflict: Toenails blackened and torn. Crippling leg cramps. Wasted $150 lift tickets. Ruined vacations. Endless trips back to the boot fitter.

Those are the honest-to-goodness repercussions of getting the wrong fit. That’s the stuff of compelling sales copy. Not bullets from the manufacturer’s spec sheet.

But not a single online ski shop capitalizes on those emotional hooks. They’re all just lined up, offering the same brands at the same prices with the same mundane sales pitch.

After hours of online research I know a lot more about boot fitting, but I don’t know which models are most likely to fit my feet. In fact, I’ve been to every online ski shop I could find, and only one – REI – provides anything more than just the manufacturer’s stock product spiel.

That’s what separates the best e-commerce stores; A higher degree of expertise. Better salesmanship. And a brand that means something beyond just making a quick online sale.

In 2019 Norm Thompson’s parent company announced that they would be “exiting the brand.” It’s too bad… the company that started in 1949 selling flies to avid fly fisherman and morphed into one of the leading catalog companies couldn’t make it in this new world of e-commerce.

But before they started losing money, they lost their focus on wealthy baby boomers. They lost their unique tone of voice. They lost their differentiating personality. They lost the soul of the brand after multiple buy-outs.

So that’s the new normal in e-commerce.  Even though business is booming, the brands that lose focus will fail. Cars, appliances and many other big ticket items are now routinely purchased with just a click of the mouse, but that doesn’t guarantee success.

So here’s the question for all e-commerce entrepreneurs: What are you doing to make the buying experience better for your customers?

What are you saying that’s different than what your competitors say?

What information are you providing that’ll improve your credibility and set yourself apart?

What features do you offer on your site that’ll guide customers through the research and make purchase process easier?

What does your online store really say about the potential longevity of your brand?

Are you running a nameless online store, or building an e-commerce brand?

If you’re hard pressed for answers, give us a call. We can help.

 

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branding sites that sell

The Allure of Ecommerce (4 reasons why small retail brands often fail at online sales)

These days, everyone wants a piece of the Ecommerce action. I understand the temptation… There are many stories circulating about the demise of brick and mortar stores and the rise of the bricks and clicks model.

It’s a shiny penny that many can’t resist. But if brick and mortar retail is the heart of your brand, you better be careful when it comes to ecommerce.

First of all, the tales of retail armageddon are greatly exaggerated.

According to The Economist, only 10% of all products sold in America in 2017 were sold through online retailers. So if you have a retail store, don’t give up. Ninety percent of all the stuff in the world is still being sold though brick and mortar stores, many of which are small, locally owned establishments.

retail marketing Amazon Go store

According to The Atlantic, the retail industry isn’t dying, but it is at an inflection point.  “Some brick-and-mortar retail brands with large footprints are struggling, while some e-commerce brands, like Warby Parker and Amazon, are now realizing the value of storefronts. Indeed, Amazon sees an uptick in online shopping in regions where it has a physical store, according to CNBC.” 

So it goes both ways.

More on retail industry branding.

One thing’s for sure… There’s an inevitable march toward the “bricks and clicks” model, where all retailers have elements of both ecommerce and traditional retail sales.

Here’s why: It feels better to buy from a real person. Simple as that.

We all appreciate the infinite information available online and the lazy-ass convenience of one-click buying, but it leaves us feeling empty. Unfulfilled. Vaguely dissatisfied when compared to traditional retail shopping.

Which leads me to 4 common problems that arise when successful little retailers try their hand at ecommerce…

1. They forget what they’re really all about.

If you have a successful, specialty retail store, chances are you provide a fair amount of personalized service. You wouldn’t stay in business without it.

For many of the retailers I know, that personal touch is a core element of their brand promise. That’s what they’re all about, and it’s impossible to duplicate that online.

Even if you devise the world’s greatest online shopping user interface, the shopping experience will always feel better in real life.

So when it comes to ecommerce, your value proposition no longer applies.

too many choices BNBranding Brand Insight Blog2. They don’t differentiate their online store from the sea of competitors.

There’s a ton of competition in the wide, wide world of ecommerce, but very few companies do anything to differentiate their online store from all the rest.

It doesn’t make sense… They wouldn’t open a brick and mortar store that’s exactly the same as the store across the street, but that’s what they do online.

They use the same Ecommerce website template. They offer the same products for the same MAP price. They even use the exact same wording for the sales page of every product.

You can’t just cut and paste the same exact blurb, same photo and the same product specs and expect good results. You have to differentiate yourself somehow. You need to customize your pitch, improve your copy, and mix up the words a bit. You need to give people a reason to buy from you, instead of Amazon.

So how are you supposed to do that?

You could offer a unique mix of products. (Most niched e-commerce sites offer the exact same products as their competitors. But even if you could find something they don’t have, it’s not a sustainable advantage unless you have an exclusive arrangement with the manufacturer. So scratch that.)

You could offer lower pricing. (Actually, most MAP pricing agreements preclude you from doing that.)

You could use different technology. (There are many different back-end Ecommerce systems these days, and they all work pretty well. A good user interface is the cost of doing business in this space.)

You can have better content presented in your own, unique way, based on brand values that prospects will actually care about.

That, you can do!  Learn how with this post.

3. They fail to see the difference between Ecommerce transactions and in-person sales.

Besides a ridiculously low price, what do online shoppers want?

Information. Insight. And peace of mind.

Even if they’re ready to pull the trigger online shoppers want facts, reviews, articles or some kind of credible content that helps make the purchase decision a little bit easier.

But amazingly few e-commerce sites actually fit the bill when it comes to informative content. Most offer no insight. No salesmanship. No differentiation whatsoever. They just regurgitate the manufacturer’s product spiel and hope for the best.

In fact, most online ecommerce sites aren’t really retail sites at all. They’re more like virtual warehouses.

If you want to establish a successful Ecommerce store you need to act like a real retailer, but in the online world. That means content marketing. That means sharp, convincing copy, and inspiring product stories. That means salesmanship.

ecommerce differentiationEarly in my career I wrote copy for Norm Thompson. Before J. Peterman ever became famous, Norm Thompson had a unique voice that resonated with its mature, upscale audience. We produced long, intelligent product pitches that went way beyond technical specs and pretty pictures.

For instance, I remember writing a full page spread on the optics of Serengetti Driver sunglasses. You could buy Serengetti’s in many different places, but no other sales outlet was as thorough as Norm Thompson.

Those spreads were helpful. Heroic. Practical. Luxurious. Readable. And convincing. It was the voice of the brand, and guess what? It worked.

The conversion rates and sales-to-page ratios of the Norm Thompson catalog were among the highest in the direct response industry. It’s tough to find anything remotely close in the on-line world. And unfortunately, Norm Thompson has failed to maintain that unique voice in the e-commerce arena. There’s no “Escape From the Ordinary” on their websites.

4. They’re not prepared for the added operational complexities of Ecommerce.

It’s a lot of work, running a profitable store. And guess what?  It’s just as much work running an Ecommerce store.
That’s what you have to get your head around before you dive into ecommerce… It’s like having two different businesses.
I know at least one retailer who thinks she can just “put up a website to take care of her excess inventory.” It’s never as easy as that. Here are just a few of the operational challenges you’ll face:
Buying gets more complicated, since there may be items that you sell online but not in your store, and vice versa.

There are technical issues galore… You better make sure that your POS system syncs seamlessly with your ecommerce platform. You’ll need a webmaster and someone to handle continual site updates as well as SEO, SEM and all the other components of digital marketing. You can easily get sucked into doing a lot of behind the scenes management that you’re not qualified for, and you really don’t enjoy.

Labor costs will increase. You’ll need more help to get those orders filled and the website maintained. You have to run a pick, pack and ship operation out of the back of the store.=

So ask yourself this: Do you have the bandwidth for ecommerce? And will your traditional retail business suffer if you’re pulled in another direction?
According to Gartner Research, 89% of marketing leaders predict that customer experience will be the primary basis for competitive differentiation in the coming years of retail. Here’s an example of how well the customer experience of bricks and clicks can work:

Bricks & clicks REI coopI recently bought a new pair of walking shoes.  I could have purchased them online — I certainly did enough research — but I wanted the front-line opinion of a good shoe salesman. I wanted to talk with a human being, have a conversation and get a read on the three different shoes that I was considering.

I wanted to feel the difference.

So I went to the local REI and made a great purchase.

I trust that place. I love what the brand stands for. The salesmen know their shit. And REI’s site was a great source of information that started me on the path to purchase.

REI’s website was more credible than the manufacturer’s website, and it had better info on hiking shoes than Amazon or any other online resource that I could find.

The manufacturer’s brand and the local REI store both benefit from REI’s online presence and the REI brand ethos. The REI brand benefits from the expertise of its local salespeople to help close sales that started online.

That’s how it’s supposed to work! Bricks and clicks.

It’s a great model that can work for a big company like REI. But it’s not so easy for a small retail chain or an individual store. So before you start fishing for new customers through ecommerce, I’d suggest that you do some soul searching. Maybe you’ll find your brand.