Five ways the big retailers (and everyone else) can improve their online presence

This week the retail industry has called on the Government to “level the playing field” and either charge GST for imports under $1,000 or drop the domestic GST altogether as more shoppers head online.

But as plenty of online retailers have pointed out, businesses calling for this tax reform such as Harvey Norman, David Jones and Myer haven’t exactly been doing their part in this fight.

While the rest of the industry has adopted to the digital age, these businesses haven’t been putting in the hard work by making sure their websites are up-to-date, sophisticated and user friendly like the rest of the retail world.

Listen up, guys: if you want to level the playing field, then you need to put some real effort into your online presence and make sure you’re adapting to customer needs. But right now, your sites aren’t convincing anyone to buy and need a lot of work.

Here are five ways these retailers can improve their online presence and start attracting more sales to “level the playing field”

Show your stock

Every retail chain that manages several stores will be keeping detailed inventory lists that let staff know how much of a particular item is at a certain store – and there is no reason why that information shouldn’t be available to the public.

Most consumers use the internet as a researching tool, meaning they look at one product online and then they buy it in a physical retail store. But one of the biggest annoyances a customer can have is when they find a product they like, but after travelling to the shops end up finding the product isn’t in stock.

Retailers can, and should, eliminate this annoyance. Use your website to show how much stock of a particular item you have so customers know where they need to go – and if you don’t have it in store, then let them know when you’re expecting it.

The Dick Smith website provides browsers with a detailed list of each store that carries a particular item, and also gives information on local stores, phone numbers, and maps for directions.

Your website isn’t just a catalogue – it’s a portal for information that you should be using to drive more traffic to your stores.

Make everything social

Everything is social – and that includes shopping. When customers buy a particular product, they want to tell their friends about it, and that means your website needs to start letting them do so.

No matter what product you’re selling, your website should let your customers share that product on social networks like Twitter and Facebook. Fashion chain Supré, which was a winner in last year’s SmartCompany Web Awards, sells most of its catalogue on its website, but also features a “share” button that lets buyers show off their purchases on blogs and social networks.

And while you’re at it, you should be setting up accounts on these sites as well to monitor any chatter about your brand. If someone on Twitter shares that they’ve bought one of your products, why not reply to them and give a quick “thank you”? It takes all of five seconds and your customers will remember you for it.

Allow user reviews

The internet is an open platform for any customer to say what they feel – and research shows that you should give them that opportunity through user-generated reviews.

Some entrepreneurs may balk at the thought of allowing customers to review products on their own website. But according to a study conducted by ComScore and The Kelsey Group in 2007, you may find business improve once you do.

When these two firms examined consumer-generated reviews online, they found that not only did 24% of people report using online reviews prior to paying for a service offline, but more than 75% of consumers in every purchasing category said a review had a significant influence on their decision to purchase.

About 97% said they found online reviews to be accurate, and said that reviews generated by other consumers were more influential than reviews by professionals, journalists or bloggers. And customers were also more willing to pay at least 20% more for offline services that had received excellent ratings online.

Sites such as Amazon place a huge amount of importance on user reviews, while others such as TripAdvisor and Yelp are built on the very concept of sharing experiences. This type of activity is simply commonplace in online retail now.

If you think you have the best products, then prove it – allow your customers to share their experiences online. They’re already going to do it anyway on social networks, so allowing them to post a comment or two on your website will only improve your reputation.

Give your customers some support

Customers don’t like being left in the dark. If they have a problem, they need to be able to contact someone straight away and get it fixed.

There are plenty of retailers now operating 24/7 online chat services to help customers fix their issues. If you train up your support staff well enough, you can have them fixing problems and it will save those customers from complaining about social media later on.

DIY furniture chain IKEA uses online chat to help out troubled customers, and local tech retailer Kogan uses the chat function as well. Kogan even allows support staff to work from home, which saves on office space.

Your customers are comfortable using the internet, even for support – train some staff in online tech support and it will make your customers’ lives a lot easier.

Integrate your channels

It’s important for businesses to remember that websites are not just a separate tool that is vaguely associated with your company. You need to start integrating your online and offline strategy, and one of the best ways to do that is by allowing your customers to order online and pick-up goods in-store.

It’s already well-known that the internet is a research tool, so your website will be the first point of contact for many consumers. It would make the shopping experience so much better for them if they could browse a product, choose it, and then have it ready for pick-up in a matter of hours.

This model has been extremely popular for electronics chain Radio Shack in the United States, and back home whitegoods retailer The Good Guys is doing the same thing – you buy your product online and pick it up the same day.

The Good Guys also familiarises the buyer with their local store by having them choose their location straight away, then providing them with a picture of the store manager along with other information such as opening hours and a phone number.

Don’t close yourself off to sales opportunities. Multi-channel retailing will make the shopping experience easier for the consumer, and will keep them coming back.

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