Over the past 10 years, e-commerce has changed the face of retail, with shoppers’ habits altering dramatically and continuing to change as the sector itself evolves. High-street stalwarts like John Lewis are reporting that profits for the online arms of their operations are growing steadily in contrast to a slow-down on the high-street, while major names like Borders have been brought down by online competition.

Over the past 10 years, e-commerce has changed the face of retail, with shoppers’ habits altering dramatically and continuing to change as the sector itself evolves. Clifford McDowell, CEO of website builder, Mr Site, looks at how our online shopping habits are changing and how small businesses can keep abreast of shifting trends.

High-street stalwarts like John Lewis are reporting that profits for the online arms of their operations are growing steadily in contrast to a slow-down on the high-street, while major names like Borders have been brought down by online competition.

If you operate in retail, then your online strategy can be key to success – and if successfully implemented, can give you a real chance to compete against more established brands.

So, the first question an emerging SME owner needs to ask themselves is whether they want to run a pure e-commerce business, whether they want to support a bricks-and-mortar operation with an online shop, or whether online retail isn’t quite right for their business at the moment but is something to bear in mind for the future.

One thing to consider is that even if you work in a service rather than product-focused field, e-commerce can still be an interesting channel for generating business. We’ve seen restaurants selling cooking experiences online, schools selling courses, photographers offering shoots, all of which can be ways to support the main business.

We think that when you’re in the planning stages, there are three key areas which can have a huge impact on how successful your new venture will be.

Branding

For a successful online enterprise branding really matters. You’re not going to be able to win customers over with your winning personality and natty taste in shop window dressing, so you’ll need to convey those qualities through the imagery on your site, your copy and the site design. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to hire a website designer, unless you have some very specific and advanced e-commerce needs. You can also buy a package that allows you to do it yourself, even if you’re not in the least bit technical – this route gives you total control over your site, is inexpensive and should give you access to high-end design features.

Whichever option you go for, before you build your site it’s worth coming up with a set of brand guidelines, to make sure the site looks as professional as possible. A few areas for you to think about:
  • What are the colours of your brand and how will you present them on your site, without taking focus away from your actual products?
  • How do you use your company logo and is it striking and memorable?
  • What is your copy style and your key messages? Can you communicate your unique selling point quickly and powerfully to website visitors?
  • Do you have a unique image style – for example, do you use illustrations, humourous images, photos of customers? How is this style supported by your copy?
  • Have you taken professional product photos and can shoppers see products in great enough detail?

Online customer service

Just because you’re operating online, it doesn’t mean you can forget about your customer service; in fact, it matters all the more. So, before you venture into e-commerce you need to be sure that you have the resources to provide your customers with all the pre-and-post sales help they need. One good tip is to have specific email addresses for different areas of your business, such as sales@yourbusiness.com or support@yourbusiness.com.

Many people prefer to call rather than email when they have questions, regardless of whether you’re an online business or not, so make sure they can easily find your phone number on the site. If you’re short on staff, you might consider using a remote receptionist service – remember to make clear the times when someone will be available to answer calls.

Include full contact details on your website, including addresses and phone numbers. Far too many companies make do with just a ‘contact us’ form, which, while useful, on its own is not reassuring enough for anyone considering spending their money with you!

Delivery

Delivery and returns will make or break your customer service and if you get it right, it will really reduce the number of customers enquiries you need to field. Here’s a few suggestions and questions to get you thinking along the right lines:
  • Make your returns policy clear, and make it easy to shop with you by offering free returns. It’s also worth ensuring that your packaging is designed so that customers can easily return products, and include labels with the returns address with the product.
  • Put thought into your packaging – colours, materials and messages included inside can all support your branding.
  • Can your product be sent easily in the post and what packaging is required to ensure products arrive in perfect condition?
  • How expensive will delivery costs be? Will you pass this expense onto the customer? What delivery options do your competitors offer?
  • Which delivery firm can give you the best deal and are they the most reliable?
  • Remember, if you sell online then you’re obligated to provide returns information to your customers and accept returns seven days after purchase, according to the e-commerce and distance selling regulations.

And finally…

Last thing we’d recommend is that that you keep up with trends in online commerce; you don’t want to sit back on your laurels and then suddenly six months later realize that your competitors have got a march on you with a fancy new site design or app. Save an hour or so every few weeks to browse through blogs, competitor sites and useful websites like www.inspiresme.co.uk; plus it’s worth subscribing to titles like Retail Week and Internet Retailer.