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Last year I did a lot of online shopping, more shopping than I have ever done before.
I suspect if you’re a net addict as I am, you spent more online last year than ever before too.
According to Comscore, over $43.2 Billion was spent online in 2012. That’s up 15% from 2011. It’s a cliché to say now that online shopping is the real deal, and not just a fad.
You’re a crazy person if you have a product to sell and you don’t look at the World Wide Web as one of your top priority distribution channels.
I remember during the late 1990s and early 2000s when several times I would suggest someone buy something online, or explain how I did, and they would give me this distrustful face…
Is it safe? Won’t my credit card get stolen if I put it into the computer?
I told them statistically you were more at risk of someone looking over your shoulder when you use your credit card and stealing your number in real life, compared to online transactions.
As with most things online, early adopters were first and from there slowly word spread to the mainstream that online shopping was not only safe, but in many ways a better way to buy things.
We all know why online shopping is great. Cheaper prices, more selection due to reduced costs in storing inventory (no limited shelf space like in the real world), and because of our marvelous global postal system, it can be very quick, even when ordering from a country on the other side of the planet.
In my case, 2012 was the first year I finally took the leap and made a purchase I had been hesitant to do before…
I bought shoes online.
Shoes were a bit of last resistance point for me because of the issue of size. I was hesitant to buy something that needs to fit right.
Thanks to companies like Zappos, with their free returns policy and support to make returning items easy (packaging ready to be used to send the shoes back), the issue of incorrect size became less of a problem.
I didn’t buy from Zappos last year, but I did go a little crazy at Australian stores like TheIconic.com.au, which has been doing an advertising blitz locally in Australia to spread awareness via billboards and bus ads.
I bought several pairs of shoes, t-shirts and singlets at TheIconic. Throughout the year I also purchased all the usual things like video and computer equipment on eBay and specialist online outlets, food supplements (even things like organic Almond butter) from stores like iHerb, cereal and american chocolate we can’t get here in Australia from usafoods.com.au, software and watches, bags, books, music and more.
Many of the items I purchased are impossible to buy anywhere in Australia from physical stores, while others I just prefer to buy online because it’s cheaper. I like that I can just open up a browser to make a purchase.
What I am going to write next is going to be a scary thing to hear if you are a retailer with a physical store and no online presence. Whenever I buy something in the real world I feel on some level I am paying more than I need to because I can probably get it cheaper online, if I am willing to look hard enough.
Over the decade that I have bought online, things have improved greatly when it comes to the shopping experience.
Many of the features I now take for granted used to be frustration points, and still can be of course if they are not available.
Big stores like Amazon and Zappos know what they are doing and lead the way in delivering a great online shopping experience. Smaller retailers, and in particular small e-commerce stores offered by solo-entrepreneurs, need to ensure they can offer the same features that the big stores have if they want to compete.
Below, I have outlined seven must-have online shopping features. These I believe are mandatory criteria if you plan to make sales online this year, especially as the e-commerce landscape becomes more and more crowded.
You know what I hate? Filling out long forms online to purchase something.
Sure I use a form filler that most browsers now have, which speeds things up, but you know what’s even better – when you have your data stored and you can just click buy, confirm your details and you are done.
That’s what great about big outlets like Amazon and Apple, they store your payment preferences under a global account, then you can come back to any of their online stores and click buy. The experience is even better on Kindle and iPad, and shopping via mobile is seamless too. One click buying across multiple platforms, instant automatic downloads, all without needing to fill in any details, makes online shopping frictionless.
When I am in a certain mood, the difference between just clicking “buy” at a shop I already buy from or having to fill out a form at a new store for the first time, will result in returning to the place that makes it easier, even if it’s slightly more expensive.
Make sure you can store your customers’ details so they only ever need to fill out a form once, and keep that form short!
Quick delivery is a must. I’ve seen many retailers achieve same day delivery for cities where they have a distribution centre or storefront.
For example, TheIconic promotes three-hour delivery in Sydney. That’s impressive.
Free returns for at least three months, and making it easy for people to do returns by including packaging, addressed and ready to go, is a brilliant risk reversal.
If you are not sure the clothes will fit or look right on you, order anyway. Why not order three sizes, one up and one down from the size you think you are, and return the two you don’t want.
Obviously to make this work from the retailer’s perspective you have to know your margins. You can’t mess around with the numbers or the cost of your returns policy will eat away any profits.
Retailers who make this work make purchasing online almost as easy as purchasing in-store – in some ways it is easier. For many people who don’t like the process of going in to try on clothes with annoying shop attendants, the option to buy online is looking pretty good.
Back in the day, all you needed to worry about when it came to optimisation for online sales was your website.
Test and tweak your copy, your keywords, your buyer flow, dropout points, and all the bits and pieces that go together to bring a person to your website, and then make a sale.
Today those outcomes are still primary concerns, but you also need to factor the same things for your mobile and tablet versions of your site too.
If you don’t have a seamless, well-branded and reliable means for people to purchase your goods on their phone and tablet device, you are missing out on sales.
I’ve used everything from email or web help desk, to live chat, and the phone to get customer support from online companies I buy from.
Each format has its pros and cons. Sometimes I dread the phone for fear of waiting in queues or not getting a real human, or someone who lives in another country who only knows how to take me through scripted support procedures that spend a lot of time talking about things irrelevant to my needs.
I like live chat because it’s quick. Some things you can’t easily describe over text based chat though. It does make for a great support tool when someone is making a buying decision however, so having it available on all your order forms and sales page is a smart selling tactic.
Email is the “old faithful” of customer service methods. The problem with it, as a customer, is you never know where your message is going, or who is going to reply or when it will be replied to.
Today, offering email, chat and phone support are expected, especially of the largest online retailers. However that doesn’t mean you can’t offer these sorts of features as a small business.
Using things like Skype, including Skype-In phone numbers, live chat software you can add to your site by copying a little code to your pages, help desk scripts, and of course, staying on top of email support by hiring someone to specifically focus on it – you can offer it all.
This might be obvious, but I’m surprised by how many online retailers miss the obvious.
Since you can’t walk up and touch a product when shopping online, providing as many high quality photographs, from many different angles, is a must.
If you shop on eBay you know exactly what I am talking about. The quality and range of photographs of whatever you are purchasing have a direct impact on whether you decide to make a purchase.
Many online retailers offer an inbuilt on-site review system, which can attract positive reviews – if your product is good, of course.
Ideally, however, the kind of reviews that really matter are what shows up in a Google search when someone types in “your product name + review”.
Of course you can’t dictate what people put in a review, but you certainly can encourage people to write reviews. Offer prizes, discounts, an affiliate or referral program, or simply ask for reviews post-purchase.
Just make sure before you go encouraging reviews you don’t have any significant flaws in your product or customer buying experience process or you might not get the kind of review you are after. Bad reviews can stay in Google forever, so you really need to be careful.
This is perhaps another no-brainer, but it’s important to remember people expect the internet to offer a cheaper price for the same quality of product as they can get offline.
If you sell digital goods, your production and replication costs once you create your product are virtually zero. That’s a pretty good profit margin to work with.
If you sell physical goods, you do have fixed costs, but not nearly as many as bricks and mortar stores. You don’t have rent to pay for shop fronts or display costs, or the expense associated with a retail sales force, who on some days cost more money in salary than they bring in.
You also have the potential for scale because you can much more easily reach a global audience.
If volume reduces cost, for example negotiating cheaper prices from suppliers because you buy in bulk, you can pass on the savings to your customers.
People expect a certain level of experience when shopping online with you. Without the above seven elements, you run the risk of turning them away.
Online shopping has one key difference to offline shopping – comparison is easy.
Shoppers can compare and contrast with a click of a mouse. Sometimes just failing one of the criteria above is the deal breaker that will cost you the sale.
I am blogging on behalf of Visa Business and received compensation for my time from Visa for sharing my views in this post, but the views expressed here are solely mine, not Visa’s.
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