In a recent story, the Associated Press reported that online shopping is growing faster that shopping in brick and mortar stores.
No surprise, but since we are inundated with information about online shopping, it's easy to forget that only a fraction of total sales occur online. That fraction is growing, but the bottom line is that local retailers still have huge opportunity in terms of protecting existing market share of total sales.
How proactive are your local merchants in defending that market share, and how proactive is your local media company in helping them develop strategies to do so?
Awareness is the key. It's important that you and your advertisers understand the reasons for online sales growth. There are strong positive elements to the online shopping experience:
- Timeliness. Shoppers can shop when they want 24/7, with no restrictions. They never encounter a "Closed" sign.
- Convenience. No traffic problems, no weather restrictions or risks, and no frustration with finding a parking place (or having to put money in a meter). Online shoppers who really think it through also realize they are saving gas every time they choose to shop online instead of locally.
- Low price and easy price comparisons. "I found it cheaper online" is a refrain we hear too often. Online shoppers who use price comparison services are comforted thinking that they never miss the best price.
That's a powerful list of benefits. How can we compete?
First, remember that online shopping carries a few significant negative factors:
- You can't touch and feel the merchandise. This is significant for a whole host of products, especially when the shopper is not already familiar with the product line. Thus shoppers take a risk when they buy many clothing items online, and the same holds true for accessories, luggage, and even things like cutlery and furniture.
- Related to that, the returns process is often much more painful online, despite anecdotal claims of "easy retruns." Even when there is no cost associated with online returns, the shopper usually gives up significant time and energy to complete the transaction.
- Online shopping is impersonal, in terms of the buyer's relationship with the seller. Many large online retailers make it very difficult for you to reach a human being when there is a question or problem.
- When you shop online, virtually all the money leaves your community and goes somewhere else. With the possible exception of some Fedex and UPS drivers, you are not supporting any local jobs through your purchases.
That list gives local merchants significant attack points, but first they need to make sure that they are really strong where the online shopping arena is weak. Then they need to tell the story - loudly and consistently - through aggressive local marketing efforts.
Here's a quick checklist that every local business needs to consider, painful as the process might seem:
- Are you making it as easy as possible for a shopper to visit your store? The little things matter. Do you validate parking? Do you have someone who will carry packages to the customer's car? Put yourself in the mind of the potential shopper and go from there.
- Are your hours as flexible as they can possibly be? As we travel the country working with media companies, we are struck by the number of local businesses that do not open until 10 AM, 11 AM, or even later. If you are only staying open from 11 AM to 5 PM, you are making it tough for typical working people to do business with you.
- Is your customer service as friendly as it can possibly be? This is where the online experience can never match up to what you can do face to face, so maximize the advantage by making your customers feels loved.
- Are you competitive on price? Take time to price match against your online competitors. You may not always be able to deliver the absolute lowest price, but if you are in the ballpark then your other advantages will kick in and you will keep customers. Conversely, if an item you carry can be found at half the price online, over time you will continually lose market share.
- If you sell higher ticket items such as jewelry or designer clothing, would you consider a service where you bring the shopping experience to the customer's home? If so, you wipe out most of the advantages that online sellers are using against you.
As the local media company in your community, step up and help provide education in this area for local businesses. Then help provide marketing campaigns that help your local stores take the "Shop Local" message to your market - loudly and consistently.