With more of the world spending more of their lives online, e-commerce is a truly powerful weapon in the strategic toolkit of any small or medium-sized businesses. A good platform and online presence should be intrinsic to the ecosystem of your company, no matter what product or service you provide. Let's look at some key lessons to take on board when adopting e-commerce for business growth.
Once just a way of showing people that they could shop from home, e-commerce has grown to form the basis of retailers' business worldwide in 2020 to the tune of USD4.28 trillion – projected to hit USD5.4 trillion by 20221. While it's true the coronavirus pandemic has created a big surge in online activity, e-commerce has been steadily rising in popularity and significance for well over a decade.
For small and medium-sized businesses, this is a strategic opportunity that you probably cannot afford to ignore.
If you thought e-commerce was just another route to making that sale, think again. The whole ecosystem that exists behind online retail is actually a real-time, always-on shop window that showcases your brand and tells the story of what you do in a way unlike any traditional marketing activity. This can let you pivot your product or service to suit new channels of growth that were previously untapped due to cost, or geographic or time constraints.
Fiona Lau, COO and Cofounder of Shopline, one of Asia's biggest omni-channel retailers, says: "This sector has seen a big change over the past five years. And I think that this trend has accelerated in the past year, with some merchants reaching more than three-digit percentage growth."
"The whole experience is not just about online purchases, it's creating a whole new customer journey for the merchant and for the customer. The newer 'theme' right now is omni-channel, because it concerns all the different ways for you to reach your customers and communicate with them."
Thanks to the dominance of players such as Amazon and Alibaba, customers now expect to get their hands on every possible product in the same way. Over the course of 10 years, shopping for books or flight tickets has been the trigger for expansion into electronics, fashion and food.
For the customer, shopping on desktop or laptop computers has long since given way to tablets and smartphones, carried out in quick time, sometimes in two simple taps/clicks using digital mobile payments. If you are a retailer, whether B2B or B2C, customers will expect the ability to buy your product online or at least find out more detailed information.
Large corporates have an infrastructure of support and cash that can help them finance a huge online presence. But their size means they need to commit to certain approaches, and they can take time to respond in an environment where platform functionality and ease of use is constantly improving.
SMEs(small medium enterprises), however, are generally much more agile, and therefore able to capitalise on innovations that can give them vital first-mover advantage in a fiercely competitive space.
Lau echoes this sentiment, arguing that: "SMEs are very resilient and welcoming of change. I think that in the past year, what has really changed is that previously, merchants could still have their offline stores and reach out to consumers. But right now, everyone has embraced social commerce, conversational commerce. It's basically interacting with your customers in another way, to try to find a way to talk to them that recreates a face to face experience. I think that also pushes e-commerce to the next level."
While the back-end technology of e-commerce platforms is improving at an exponential rate, this shouldn't scare you off making the change for the benefit of your business. Whether your shopping platform is hosted by a big online provider or part of your own website infrastructure, it will need the necessary technical attention – but there are agencies and service providers who can help you present your business professionally.
As an SME, your time is better spent on marketing your presence and differentiating your brand from the competition.
Chaitanya Adapa, head of the cashflow management company udaanCapital, says: "The single largest focus for me is to figure out what my niche is. How am I differentiating myself from the innumerable number of suppliers and sellers out there on the internet? There are a number of tools now being built out around platforms like ours, to make it easier for a supplier to sell online. So this whole ecosystem that's getting built around e-commerce platforms should ease the life of the seller."
The beauty of using e-commerce is that you have access to a back-end database and analytics that will let you see your customer preferences, and where the bulk of them congregate. You might find that you have more successful interactions on social media rather than retail or auction platforms.
High quality data can let you know your customers' shopping habits, such as where are they clicking on your platform? At what point are you losing visitors? How often are visitors abandoning their carts?
It can also show you their viewing and social media preferences, so use it to design your strategy. For example, if you sell food and drink, think about how a series of recipe videos on social media might drive interest and pull traffic to your platform.
The all-important customer reviews can also provide invaluable insight from your customers. This type of data can help you improve your product design and the customer service you provide, which could make all the difference.
E-commerce is not just a labour-saving device for home shoppers. It is a living, strategic marketing tool that evolves over time. It can help increase your reach and brand value, as well as give you the chance to engage with customers in very nuanced ways – from social media to digital payment platforms.
Are you too late to join? As long as you have a healthy obsession with your customer, it's never too late to build a successful e-commerce strategy that can take your business from good to great.
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