I recently spoke to about a dozen small business retail clients of mine about what they were doing to prepare for the upcoming holiday season and, unlike in past years, there was a predominant theme to the conversations. That theme was ecommerce.
According to the National Retail Federation (NFR), online and other non-store sales were up 23.9% in 2020 during the holiday season. But despite unprecedented challenges, sales across the board increased in the 2020 holiday season 8.3%. What does that mean for this upcoming year? It means you should expect plenty of shoppers both online and in person.
On top of this, people’s personal savings are up, household debt is down and, let’s face it, people really want something to celebrate this holiday season. Smart retailers — both big and small — know this. They’re preparing to meet this demand. Sure, they’re fixing up their stores in anticipation of customer visits. But the ones I spoke to are investing heavily in online platforms. So should you. Here’s what I’ve learned.
For starters, you need to be on one of the big platforms. Yes, that means Amazon. Or eBay. Or Etsy. Or Alibaba, Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. These sites reach millions of potential buyers all around the world. They are heavily trafficked and supported by hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising and support just to draw that traffic. Yes, there are rules to be followed, and competition can be fierce. But every retailer I know has a presence on at least one of these major shopping platforms.
You should also sell from your own website. Invest in tools like Shopify, Magento or Big Commerce so you can set up your own storefront on your website that will integrate with your on-premise point-of-sale system. Make sure your ecommerce application can integrate with your inventory and accounting systems. Make sure the provider has a large community of users and support and that you are comfortable working with them for the foreseeable future; you don’t want to have to change providers. Visitors should be encouraged to go to your site first, rather than the big players mentioned above. This will likely earn you the highest margins. Of course, continue selling from one of the major platforms — the more channels for your products this holiday season, the better.
You need a marketing budget. Simply putting products on the web doesn’t guarantee traffic. If you’re on one of the bigger platforms above, then you’ll need to leverage the marketing tools provided. Facebook, for example, will let you mass communicate to your followers by Messenger and then use AI tools to automatically respond to requests and drive visitors back to your page. Amazon has its own internal advertising tools, as does eBay. If you’re selling independently, you’ll likely need to invest in Google’s online advertising products. You will definitely want to invest in re-targeting tools from Google, AdRoll or Criteo so that when people leave your site, they’re enticed to return through banner ads on other sites they visit.
Don’t forget about sales tax. Thanks to a landmark Supreme Court decision a few years ago, states can collect sales tax from companies even if they don’t have a physical presence in the state. You will need to make sure you’re collecting sales taxes from all local jurisdictions and then filing the right forms. This is complicated and bureaucratic, so my recommendation is to take advantage of online sales tax platforms such as Avalara and Vertex. Don’t worry — they integrate with all of the platforms and ecommerce applications I’ve mentioned above.
You need to collect data. That’s because your online sales should never be a one-off. My best clients are collecting data from every visitor to their website. They’re integrating loyalty and coupon applications like Cheetah and FiveStars to keep visitors returning. You should be providing content — blogs and videos — that explain how to use your products or offer other educational advice and then using calls to action for people to subscribe. You should use a customer relationship management system like Salesforce, Zoho or Hubspot to store visitor data and then perform outbound marketing using email and social media to keep them in the fold. By building a community of online visitors, you will be ensuring that repeat sales will continue to occur in the future, and we all know that the cost of selling to an existing customer is much less than the cost to acquire a new one.
You will need to invest in a person. Unless you want to spend all of your waking hours doing this, the small retail clients that I spoke with that were serious about selling online were also investing in someone to do that for them. In some cases, that meant hiring a full-time employee. In others, it meant using someone part-time or just an independent contractor. But setting up a site on Amazon, for example, takes time and expertise. So does setting up an ecommerce platform that works from your website. Understanding margins, pricing, ad campaigns and user traffic is something that requires constant monitoring, tweaking and planning, which brings me to my last point.
And that is: you need to play the long game. This is not just a “holiday campaign.” You don’t go to all this effort just for a few weeks every year. Sure, at some point the pandemic will end, and things will get back to normal. But some things won’t change, and the pandemic only accelerated our move to more online commerce. Your investments should be made with a long-term approach because, if done right, your online channels will continue to provide a significant amount of your revenues — and profits —for years to come.
“I never thought I’d be selling so much online,” one of my clients told me. “But now I can’t imagine not doing that.” Neither can I.
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