Although the coronavirus pandemic has caused damage to practically every commercial sector, retailers have certainly been among those hardest hit.
Three national lockdowns have each brought with them the requirement for non-essential stores to close, which means that unless you sell staple food items, there’s been little option other than to literally shut up shop.
For many retail business owners, support from the Government, including furlough payment provision, has proven vital and boosted hopes that our favourite high street shops can return to something lose to business as usual in the months ahead.
The roll-out of the vaccine and the Government’s recently announced roadmap back to normality offers plenty of hope, but despite these new causes for optimism, many retailers still face an uncertain future.
And it’s perhaps during the last 12 months that ecommerce has truly evolved from being an expensive luxury or pipe dream, to becoming an essential prerequisite for retailers of all sizes with hopes of generating consistent income and expanding beyond their current means.
What are the benefits of ecommerce?
The benefits of an online store have been apparent since before the turn of the century, with the first online shops making 24-hour, 365-day service a reality for the first time.
And the last 12 months have truly demonstrated the value of an online retail presence, allowing brands to continue to do business, and sell their products and services throughout a national lockdown.
As technology has advanced, the benefits of an ecommerce presence have become more numerous and the platforms upon which they are built have become increasingly accessible to smaller operations.
Beyond simply being able to sell your products and services to your customers at any hour, ecommerce platforms are able to deliver a seamless transactional experience that is a timesaver for any business owner.
Many modern small retail businesses often enjoy some success building and engaging with a customer base through social media.
Social media channels like Facebook are a great platform for nurturing a community of customers and brand advocates, with Groups and ‘Selling Pages’ often utilised to market products and respond to enquiries.
But converting that support into transactions is where the problems begin.
With no payment platform in place, individual PayPal exchanges and bank transfers have to be arranged as part of a time-consuming process that also requires you to manually track and update orders.
An ecommerce platform provides a single point of interaction for your customers, allowing you to collect payments automatically, and view and update the status of orders with just a few short clicks.
Beyond empowering business owners to sell their products regardless of pandemic restrictions, ecommerce platforms promote brand building and can deliver a greater level of engagement than a physical store could.
An integrated online shop will not only offer your products for sale, but also tell your brand’s story, its history and its values.
Supported by digital marketing and a considered social media approach, you can build brand awareness and nurture a true affinity between your business and its customers.
Implementing voucher schemes to reward loyal customers is also straightforward, allowing you to increase scope for multiple and regular purchases, while subscriptions to products and services can easily be set up, helping to create regular income streams.
Is my retail business right for ecommerce?
For many years, ecommerce was inaccessible to all but the biggest businesses, with the costs associated with setting up an online shop prohibitive beyond consideration.
But accelerating technology has not only broadened possibilities, but also helped to make ecommerce a reality for practically any size of operation and in any sector.
And while many brands have instead focused on doing business on third party platforms like Ebay, Amazon and, more recently, Etsy, a growing number are beginning to realise the potential of an owned platform that delivers all of the benefits outlined above – without being stung on platform commission.
Platforms like WordPress, WooCommerce, Shopify and Magneto can provide the framework for any retail business to take its first step towards selling its products online.
The way in which you engage and interact with customers is also practically limitless, and there are fewer and fewer businesses who can fairly claim that their model is incompatible with ecommerce.
For example, while the majority of online retailers offer postal delivery of products, it’s very simple to offer ‘click and collect’-style functionality, keeping your costs to a minimum.
You can even allow your customers to make a purchase and complete a transaction upon delivery of the product.
In other words, it’s simple to craft your online offering around the habits of your customers, rather than forcing your customers to change.
How can I make ecommerce work with the rest of my business?
One other reason offered by retailers for not doing business online is that their in-store offering is too important to compromise, with many expressing fears that an online presence would reduce footfall in the longer term.
Of course, maintaining footfall can be a key factor for many retailers, but an ecommerce platform need not hinder that objective.
Though the majority of retailers choose to make most, if not all of their products available for purchase online, some continue to offer in-store exclusives in order to incentivise physical trade and boost footfall.
Products may be launched in store and added online at a later date, while purchases made online are often collected in-store – promoting both online and offline elements as key parts of the customer journey.
Whatever your business, selling through a dedicated online platform need not be at the expense of in-store trade and should instead be utilised to enhance and expand your existing offering to customers.
If you have a presence on existing online platforms, such as on eBay or Amazon, then it may make sense to retain that activity, particularly if marketplace visibility is a key consideration.
But you should also invest resource in helping your existing customers migrate their spend from a third party to your own platform, where both parties can enjoy many of the benefits discussed above.