The online marketing tactics that make your retail business hum

As I outlined in last week’s blog, the digital world is a constantly moving feast. So just when you think you have nailed or at least reasonably understood it, another shift will occur that can leave you scratching your head wondering what happened and how it happened so quickly.

For this reason, I’m revisiting a post from some years back (2008 to be exact!) not only to speak to those who have more recently become retailers or retail managers but to examine how much the guidelines have changed over that time.

Retail is still probably the best-placed sector of all when it comes to being ‘web-ready’. Retailers already have the three ‘S’s of stock, staff and systems and four ‘P’s of promotion, premises, packing and payment options. These assets could be valued at around at least 80% of the costs a startup online retailer needs to stump up to get their business off the ground.

But what an amazing opportunity the web still presents for retailers. For a fraction of the cost of setting up a physical store they could establish a web presence with passing traffic that would make Westfield and their ilk salivate.

Established, serviced and promoted correctly, a good online website can multiply the sales of its operator, without setting foot from your store.

So what targets should retailers be achieving with their web presence? Here’s a checklist especially for them. Keep score as you go on how many you can tick off.

1. We have embraced the web                                                                       

Sounds obvious but amazing how many don’t. What many retailers fail to grasp is that as you are reading this, at least one prospect but more likely dozens are searching the web for the very product that is on their shelves. Of course if that prospect can’t find them and is not assured that the product can be either collected or fulfilled in an affordable, secure and prompt manner, that product will stay right where it is, and a competitor will move theirs instead.

Remember too, that even if you don’t sell online, the majority of the population are still using the internet to find a physical supplier of the product they are seeking. The fact customers use the web to find high street retailers as well as online outlets is still lost on many retailers.

2. We capture the details of every single customer who walks in

To quote a high-powered speaker whose name escapes me, do you know the lifetime value of your customer? For many retailers, that is simply the value of the one product said customer bought some days, weeks or even years ago and who has since disappeared into oblivion. But that one sale could represent a fraction of the lifetime value that customer could bring, had you been able to capture their contact details to allow you to promote to them in future.

While direct mail is a great way to do this, it is literally hundreds of times more expensive than promoting your wares via email and now social networking. If they required it once, they will require it again, and these tactics are the way to ensure they buy it from you.

3. We have a professional website

Again, what is still a no-brainer to most businesses is still not commonplace among retailers. If in doubt, next time you go shopping ask the retailers you come across what their web address is. In some cases (thankfully less than when this post was first published) you’ll be given an email address or be told that it’s ‘under construction’. Either way, they are losing the business of the customers searching for their products right now.

4. We contact our list regularly via email and social networking

This is a bigger no-brainer because you don’t even need a website to take advantage of it – though of course it is preferable. Fast, cheap, effective email remains the web’s killer application despite the attention that social networking, iPhones, search engines, eBay et al receive. When in history could you send a personalised, content-laden and highly responsive message to thousands of people for virtually zero cost of transmission? It’s a major priority for not only every retailer but every business.

And social networking is not much different – the ability to broadcast your promotional message to pretty much as many people as you can muster for the cost of putting together your message and hitting ‘Enter’ is as about exciting as it can get for any marketer worth their salt.

5. We have a VIP club

But don’t just send a plain old email. Make recipients feel special by being part of a club that receives preferential treatment on product news, discounts, members’ evenings and even the odd freebie. Really, what have you got to lose? It also helps realise item 2 above. It’s far better to offer them exclusive membership to a VIP club than be one of the hordes trying to have them ‘opt in’ to their email list.

Same applies to social networks.

6. We sell online

Many would of course put this at number one, but I’d argue it’s not as important as the above goals. Why? Because many shoppers still prefer to shop ‘in the flesh’ and the above activities create in-person sales in addition to online sales.

Yes, if you sell in person you should at some point make it available to be sold via your website (or sometimes eBay, see item 9 below). Importantly, a growing number of online shoppers really aren’t interested in waiting till the next day, week or month to purchase when the whole attraction of the net is seamless and time-saving purchasing. The great news for retailers is that this once-expensive step in their online journey – adding a secure shopping cart, costs now only a small fraction of what it once did, putting it within reach of even the tiniest outlet.

7. We have a web-savvy shop assistant

Hate to say it, but retailers are not renowned for being early adopters of technology, with many still not even using a computer! (Yes, you read that correctly.) But, as we all know, if you want to find out about technology, ask your child, niece of nephew, or at least your youthful shop assistant. If you aren’t confident or comfortable about managing a website and its subsequent online marketing, hire someone who is. Most young people I know would give parts of their anatomy to manage a real-life website and this provides greater incentive to hire and maintain great candidates.

8. We have identified a profitable niche

Your online representation doesn’t necessarily have to mirror your physical store. Remember your physical store was conceived and has been managed to service customers within a given location. But online, it may be too competitive to offer exactly the same product. And by focusing on a niche, you have a better chance of being found by search engines.

Not much has changed today, with many retailers still not grasping that the online market for their line of products may be entirely different to that in their locality – and may open up some exciting opportunities for them.

9. We use eBay for clearance items and customer acquisition

Of course the obvious problem – or at least perception – with eBay for retailers is that it is full of bargain hunters. This is fine if you want to clear stock, but not so fine if, like most retailers, you want to make the highest possible margin on your product. But eBay can clear your stock cheaply and put you in front of a whole new market. Of course, if you make a sale you then have relationship with a customer that can be nurtured by email and via your website.

10. We can be found on Google et al

There’s already been enough bytes taken up with this topic to crash Silicon Valley.  Golden rule – get onto page one of search engines for your specialised products and/or locations – if not by ‘natural’ results, then by using pay-per-click advertising.

11. Inbound emails are treated like real-life customers

Did you spot the irony in this heading? Senders of emails are of course real-life customers and need to be treated as such and not just something you do when you can on the weekend – aggravating them and losing their business.

I still chuckle at the story from a web professional who once found literally hundreds of unopened sales leads in the email inbox of a car dealer. When asked why he hadn’t opened them, the salesman responded, “I’m a sales professional. I don’t bother with things like email.”

True story.

So how many did you get? As a guide, here’s what your score means:

8 – 11: Excellent. You are likely meeting your customers’ online expectations and getting steady qualified leads and sales from your website and e-marketing activities.

5 – 7: Not bad. You will be getting some benefits from your web presence but need to take action on those items that didn’t rank.

Less than 5: Poor. You are not tapping into the benefits of a professional online presence. Investigate getting one ASAP!

In addition to being a leading eBusiness educator to the smaller business sector, Craig Reardon is the founder and director of independent web services firm The E Team which was established to address the special website and web marketing needs of SMEs in Melbourne and beyond.

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