Chris Barling, CEO of ecommerce provider Actinic (www.actinic.co.uk), advises on keeping the big boys at bay this Christmas and holding onto your online business despite the competition
Five years ago, the internet was a niche channel, the preserve of small specialist businesses and online start-ups. Now the high street giants have muscled in. With the general retail sector coming under pressure from the economic downturn, they will be aiming to devour as much online business as they can get their teeth into - and sports goods are a target.
The first barrier to getting started used to be the technology. These days, technology is the easy part. The average small business will probably never need a site as sophisticated as Amazon’s or John Lewis’s, and there are plenty of excellent out-of-the-box store-building packages around. So selling online is within the reach of everyone, even the novice or technophobe. For example, the Trampolines4fun site (www.trampolines4fun.co.uk) was designed and built by site owner Peter Mulcock’s son Oliver - who was only 15 at the time.
As with any business, marketing is important - no one can buy from a store unless they know it is there. Promoting your web store need not take long or cost a fortune. Google is the number one source of new visitors for most websites. You can get listed there very quickly through Google Adwords, which includes you in the right hand column of results in return for a small payment for each visitor. Choose longer and specific search phrases like ‘size 8 running shoes’ rather than generic ones like ‘trainers’, which cost more and produce fewer sales. Don’t necessarily aim for a top three position - positions five-seven are less expensive and usually more profitable.
Once you know which search phrases generate the most business, optimise relevant pages for the free, or ‘organic’ search listings. Use each phrase in the text of the optimised page, in the title tag and in headings. Get as many links as you can to your optimised pages and to your home page, but only from relevant, good quality sites - never from link farms. Traditional marketing also works well for websites. Make sure you include your URL on all your stationery and in every printed advert. If there is an interesting news story, issue a press release to relevant publications.
Your brand may not be as widely accepted and trusted as Amazon or Marks and Spencer. But with a little effort you can present yourself in ways that more than compensate. Use customer endorsements and display the logos of any trade or professional bodies you belong to. Sports retailer Snowlines (www.snowlines.co.uk) displays links to local physiotherapists and a podiatrist who recommend them, which helps to increase customer confidence.
By law you must display your telephone number and postal address on your site and an email address is a no-brainer. Consider offering Skype and instant messaging as well, but ensure you respond to all enquiries promptly. Also by law, goods ordered online may be returned within seven days for a full refund, so you may as well offer a full money-back guarantee for unopened goods.
Maybe you cannot compete with the likes of Amazon on price, product range or delivery times. But do make sure your customers know what to expect from you - particularly when it comes to shipping. Delivery will normally be the longest stage of an online shopping experience and is also the one that is in the hands of a third party. If things go wrong, customers appreciate the more personal touch that a smaller business can deliver. So if you have an issue, contact the customer personally. Take responsibility for the problem, even it’s not your fault. Let them know what you will do and when. Don’t promise what you cannot deliver, but do follow through on your promises. This provides an edge over the bigger guys.
THAT EXTRA PERSONAL TOUCH
Personal service is one area where the small business can have a definite advantage. It enables you to build up a band of loyal customers who will return to the store again and again and share their good experiences with friends. Just as one example, Snowlines differentiates itself in the running equipment sector by keeping records of each customer’s shoe requirements, since correctly fitting shoes mean reduced risk of injury.
Giants they may be, but larger companies often have feet of clay. By making yourself strong where they are weak you can stop them eating your Christmas lunch and make the most of your own online opportunity. Maybe you could even take a bite out of their lunch. Let’s face it - they will hardly notice.