E-commerce is the fastest-growing market in Europe and North America: last year saw 18.6% growth in online sales within the EU and 14.4% in the US, and the Centre for Retail Research predicts similar levels of growth for 2017 and beyond. According to a report by Nielsen, consumers regard online retail outlets as cheaper; they like to compare prices between websites rather than trooping from store to store, and they’d rather have their goods delivered than carry them home. Mobile devices are becoming more and more popular as shopping platforms, particularly in China, where 81% of online shoppers do their business on smartphones.
This trend isn’t confined to supermarkets and hypermarkets’ or online retail giants like Amazon. Emergent technology, personalised delivery options and opportunities to add value to a physical stores revenue are making online retail a more sustainable and viable model for small businesses.
Tools and software
Technology enables small businesses to manage their operations in much greater detail than before. Everything from social media presence to such basics as record keeping and team meetings are enabled by software, mobile apps or browser-based tools. In particular, the continued reign of eBay and the emergence of Etsy (for handicrafts), Cafepress (for clothes, mugs and other ‘merch’) and BigCartel (for more or less anything) has created a lot of space for small retail businesses to operate. These platforms take over some of the roles that physical premises normally play for a business, bringing down costs and allowing owners to focus on developing their product range and sales presence.
Operating an online retail business means things need to be posted and packaged. Smart businesses can use customised packaging to provide a personal, handmade touch to their service. An unusual shape, a hand-folded wrapper or simply a customised box offer online retail businesses a chance to build their brand values, rather than fading away into the blandness of the ordinary Jiffy bag or cardboard box. These memorable shopping experiences create goodwill in the customers who feel you’ve made a special effort for them. They also help online retailers to boost sales by ensuring repeat purchases: after all, it’s cheaper and easier to sell to someone who already knows and trusts your business.
This phrase has two meanings to a small retail business. Firstly, there’s value added to their own spend by looking for cost effective ways to open up new lines of sale or salvage goods that might otherwise go to waste. Secondly, there’s value added to their customers by offering after-sales support and a chance to give feedback.
Small, boutique retailers often run an eBay, Etsy or BigCartel store alongside their physical premises. The core concept here is that any potential avenue of sale is a good avenue of sale – businesses benefit from selling both online and offline. Online sales are especially good for snap sales (in the event of over-ordering or over-production), or for offloading damaged or ex-display items. We should remember that the opposite can be true: some products, especially innovations like Yogibo’s form-fitting furniture, almost demand a physical presence because they need to be tested in order to catch on.
Added value is especially important for those of us who are running a business from home. Such small operators live in the margins: they have to keep their costs low, but their growth and viability depend on making a good impression and building up testimonials and feedback.
The bottom line
E-commerce cuts out the expense and time demand of running a ‘bricks and mortar’ outlet, making it an ideal way to start a small business. The range of platforms available allows varying levels of control – pure designers can simply upload art assets to CafePress and have everything from manufacture to shipping handled for them, while handcrafters can sell individual works via Etsy and handle everything else themselves. Inventive shipping is just one of the ways to add value to the e-commercial package – and added value for minimal cost is the best way to grow a small business into something to be proud of.