Chamber Chat - E-Commerce

Jul 08

By Meg Moss


Kiplinger is a Washington, D.C.-based publisher of business forecasts and personal finance advice.

Its best-known publications are The Kiplinger Letter, a weekly business and economic forecasting periodical for people in management, and the monthly Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. The total paid circulation of its periodicals exceeds 845,000, and its Web site, receives nearly 4 million unique visits per month. This week’s Letter talks e-commerce, and it reads:

E-commerce is big and only getting bigger. A few giant companies are dominating it. How can small merchants adapt and thrive in the age of Amazon, Google and other huge sellers? 15% of retail sales take place online now, once you exclude gasoline, restaurant meals and autos...things that are difficult to sell on the web.

In 2013...just 9%. And there’s no slowdown in sight.

Amazon nets 44% of those internet sales. Seventy-five percent of households with yearly income of $100,000 or more have an Amazon Prime membership. Over 10% of Americans have Amazon’s smart assistant on a device ready and waiting to place orders by voice prompt.

So small sellers have their work cut out if they want to compete with the Amazon juggernaut

The first step: Boost your website’s profile in the Google search rankings that most folks use when shopping for a particular product online. Content matters more than ever. Google homes in on sites with lots of text that lines up with a user’s search. Detailed product descriptions, articles that address your likely customers’ concerns and other relevant materials rank high in search results...vital for getting noticed amid the Amazons of the world.

Sites must load quickly and work on smartphones, where folks now shop more than ever. Would-be customers move on from glitchy pages in a heartbeat. Scour your site for dead links. Consider paying focus groups to rate user-friendliness.

Standing out from the crowd is key. Trying to compete on price is tough...on the web, there’s almost always another seller offering the same item for less.

Find a niche market that the mammoth retailers can’t realistically serve. Home remodeling site Houzz has succeeded by letting users demo home upgrade ideas with virtual-reality software and connecting shoppers with contractors to do the job. The RealReal sells used luxury goods and verifies their knockoffs.

Know who your customers are and engage with them. As e-commerce grows, there’s less of a mass market and more micromarkets. Tapping into them is essential.

Grunt Style, a seller of patriotic apparel, took off after its ex-drill sergeant founder connected with veterans’ groups on social media and sponsored live events for them.

If you can’t beat Amazon, you can always join it, as a third-party seller. (Accessing the company’s vast marketplace costs about 15% in sales commissions.)

On Amazon, sellers live and die by customer reviews, so pay careful heed to negative feedback. Sales volumes decline precipitously for lower-ranked products. Good customer service, including responding to negative reviews, gets noticed.

Most states will likely have revised e-commerce tax laws within a year, now that the Supreme Court has ruled states can force out-of-state web sellers to collect sales tax from their residents. The move will help level the playing field for brick-and-mortar stores, which compete with e-tailers that have evaded sales taxes.

Mark your calendar for Amazon’s self-created shopping holiday, Prime Day. It’s likely to fall on July 16 and 17 this year, with Black Friday-like sales to members of Amazon’s subscription service. Expect competitors to launch discounts of their own. Three-quarters of shoppers on Prime Day also check out rivals’ websites to comparison shop. With all the buzz, it’s a good time to try to lure new customers.


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