5 Ideas To Bring Your Wholesale/Retail Product Business Into E-Commerce
The current business landscape is wrecking long-established direct-to-physical retailer and physical retailer-to-consumer relationships. Both types of relationships are affected because consumers are reluctant to shop in physical spaces, either because they are concerned about crowds, or because it involves a considerable amount of thought consideration that, before, was not even a blip on their radar. The situation is uncertain: no one knows when the current physical retail environment will recover, and what shape that retail environment will take once the situation, as eventually will, stabilize, and the ‘new normal’ is established.
What we do know today is that many consumers, because of lockdowns, uncertainty about facemask rules, and a general desire to avoid crowded spaces, have turned to their phones and computers to do the kind of casual shopping that would normally support a group of stores in a physical retail environment. If your business depends on selling products to wholesalers, who then resell them to physical stores, or if it relies on physical locations, then your revenue is likely to be lower than it used to be at this time of year. And you need to go where your customers have gone.
The Role of Online Wholesale Retailing
The answer has been to complement the physical business by moving or kick-starting the business online. Some brands have responded by creating a space on Amazon or similar large online retailers. These double as digital wholesalers, with the advantage that you are likely to regain sales, but your business does not gain any of the advantages of digital sales due to individual online marketplace restrictions and marketing constraints. Inside one of those marketplaces, your business is also faced with a large amount of one-click-away competition, automatically generated by the Amazon or similar algorithm that places different sellers side by side for comparison. This usually leads to price competition that drives profitability down to its lowest sustainable point, and sometimes below.
This situation is different from what is encountered in physical retailing, where the appearance of similar stores within a restricted physical area (a street, a boulevard, an open air mall), has the effect of keeping a customer interested in a purchase through the exploration of multiple physical locations about that particular product. One retailer’s approach has a good chance to find its mark through the random distribution of individuals physically circulating through a shopping street without having to worry (too much) about the pricing or setup of a neighboring storefront. The randomness involved allows for a fair distribution of purchasers, over time.
Online marketplaces provide ‘naked competition’ that comes down usually to brand recognition, pricing, and convenience. The intangibles about the brand, if they are not supported by large advertising campaigns, are lost in this kind of transactional environment.
Beyond Wholesale Online Retailing
In contrast to focusing only on the sales that a large online retailer can provide, with their attendant limitations, some brands have decided to open their own online shops by building websites and establishing a relationship with their customers, one-to-one. In terms of long term sustainability for the business, this approach - which uses all the tools available for digital sales and focuses them all on your business and its customers - offers the best opportunity to not just survive the current difficulties, but to provide a springboard for consistent, profitable growth into the future. This approach may not exclude the use of a large online marketplace as a ‘home base’ for sales. Instead, it complements it because it makes a brand smarter about its customers and their connection to the products on offer.
An example is the ‘old’ Apple Computer Company, the one that existed prior to the current incarnation. That company had a close relationship with its customers. In the days before social media and the internet, Apple customers literally had a face-to-face opportunity to talk to people inside the company via the MacExpo in San Francisco, at least once a year. Not only did the company get to connect directly with people who purchased their products, but they had a rich environment that, if studied properly, provided excellent clues as to what the purchasers of Macintosh equipment would likely want next in their products. The same can be said for the days when Apple’s products were the object of discussion in specialized magazines, where editors well-versed on the products provided excellent criticism and offered (unpaid) ideas that could find themselves incorporated into future product plans. This was the method behind the ‘go where the puck will be, not where it’s gone’ idea that sometimes surfaced in the discussions about Apple’s direction with its products.
You don’t get the sense that the current version of Apple Computer has a two-sided relationship with its customers. Not through their online presence, their phones, or their online stores. Individuals may feel connected to the products as they use them, but this is on their own - an empty connection unsupported by the company itself and its customer management system. It is a fandom, not a symbiotic relationship. Apple is not learning from its customers anymore (unless it is through loss of sales due to failures of equipment - as with their ill-fated attempt to ‘innovate’ on keyboards that backfired). Apple now is like many other companies, working through a process of imitation of other companies like itself in a competitive environment, but without a path of its own.
It is a behavior similar to the murmurations of bird flocks. Each bird looks to the one next to it for guidance while flying but none of the flock is aware of the overall shape of the flock itself in the sky and no individual bird contributes to the outlines of the shape except during the process of following the others around it.
Carving Your Own Path For Your Brand
You carve a path of your own for your brand by engaging, listening, and learning from your customers, and taking that environmental information into your company to tweak your products, their presentation, and messaging, and transforming them, little by little, into something unique that may not be predictable from day one - but that as a goal, has a better chance to stand up to any competition into the future because it cannot be easily imitated: people may imitate the externals of your brand, like knock-offs of famous brands you see selling on streets in many cities, but they will not feel right to the consumer you want to have as your regular brand user.
You don’t have to be a guru about your brand and its products - but you do have to care about the people who will spend money to obtain them. That expression of caring, of being willing to understand why people purchase what you sell and how they use it, holds the key to what made the old Apple Computer special, while the new Apple Computer just feels mundane.
Steps to Avoid Being Mundane - First: Interact With Your Customers Non-Transactionally
To avoid being mundane, the crucial thing is to find a way to be relevant to some decision that someone is going to take during their day. It might be almost every day, as a grocery store does, or it may be occasionally, as a computer maker does.
To avoid being irrelevant, you need to understand the decisions that are important to your customers - about your products, and about your brand presence, and their timing in taking those decisions.
A well structured, set of automated email flows that can track specific customers either browsing or purchasing products on the site and then (with subtlety), tease out their reactions after several transactions, can help in this type of situation. This is usually supported by a strong survey-based system that is segmented and structured to appear at different moments during the customer journey.
If you already have a list of individuals in your email system, then building this approach requires careful segmentation based on product and other parameters that can be added, slowly and steadily, to the customer profile as they move through their journey. The parameters and the particulars of the journey are individual to the brand, even in transactional environments. Some brands may require customer education, and so a parameter that indicates their level of engagement with relation to that education would be helpful in segmentation, for example.
Second: Test Your Merchandising on Email
Another way that helps you be relevant to your customers is merchandising your products in a manner that is relevant. What makes a presentation ‘relevant’? If you get customers to react to it, share it on social media, and/or share it with their close circle of acquaintances, then you know that you are on the right track. You may use some of the information from the previous step to begin this type of exploration. However, a website may prove to be too inflexible for that kind of work, and a landing page, too ‘salesly.’ Instead, a flexible testing mechanism based on multiple email layouts, merchandising messages, and presentations can yield valuable information that can then be translated into the more permanent environment of the website both in terms of copy and images. After all, email delivery mechanisms have been designed from the start to yield data on everything their user touches, from clicks to views to engagement via open rates.
Three: Expand Your Learning To Multiple Channels
As information is coming into the company, and it is being put to use in everyday communications via email and the merchandising on the website, it is important to use the knowledge for testing on third party platforms as live presentations, videos, or series of related-theme postings. This need not be done via paid advertising, but using the relevant information gleaned from the ongoing activities to find another non-transactional way to connect to customers online via social media channels. This can be giveaways, or live demonstrations of the product, or any other activity that can be delivered only by the product-owner. Every product has a story to tell and you as the temporary owner of that product can tell that story in many ways and find an audience that is interested in them. This is how the search for relevance in the consumer’s life can take shape.
Four: Tell Your Product's Story But Focus on Its Relationship To The Customer - And The Testimonials That Back It Up
As much as you may be internally fascinated with all the ins and outs of your company's process, chances are that customers, existing and potential, may not share the same type of fascination. Customers like to know that you have thought about them when you are working on your products: how will they feel when they use the product, how will they react when they receive the packaging, how will the product make their lives better. Content marketing that is focused on benefits and the process of delivering them makes for a solid bridge between your brand and your customer base. The existing customer base will be reassured that they have 'backed the right horse' vs. the competition, while the potential customer base will be tempted to take a chance on you based on your content. This is where testimonials play an important part in your product's story: as the last chapter in the product's promise. Any brand can state whatever they want about their product (within legal limits), but only customer testimonials can validate those claims through impartial user opinions. Your content marketing, communicated through all channels, but especially through email flows as part of a 'conviction flow', enhanced by testimonials, has a good chance to open doors for your brand via referrals and relinking.
Five: Keep An Open Mind - But Focus On The Ultimate Goal
Regardless of how much time we put into the discovery and analysis work, there is no replacement for the process of learning how to apply it to the individual audience involved. There are no shortcuts. True, there are some problems that are already solved - for example, instead of creating an entire e-commerce system from scratch, you can use Shopify to create a perfectly suitable store that you can then customize as you need it to make it your own. You don’t need to worry about many elements that used to be cause for concerns for people like me when the internet just began to be commercialized, where nothing was known, and you had to create your shopping cart from scratch for your store. Your particular design problems can be resolved as the store takes shape and you have more income to better manage the details.
Your ultimate goal will likely be to create customers who enjoy using your products, come back for more of them, and tell people about them. But not every customer you gain will hit all those notes. And not every customer you gain, even with all the effort to connect to them, will be open to a non-transactional connection to your brand. People compartmentalize, and you have to make sure that you understand when they don’t want to connect with you, as much as when they do. Keeping an open mind and continuing the learning process will ensure that your brand pursues the ultimate goal of establishing itself in a crowded marketplace with a self-replenishing pool of customers coming and going over time.
The myth of Sisyphus tells the story of a man punished by the gods to forever roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again once he got it to the top.
Rather like looking at your email every day.
The most important real estate in an email is not in the email itself. It is the recipient’s inbox, where your email subject line will take its place among many others that arrive every day, for many reasons, fulfilling many purposes. The success of your email campaign depends on your successful management of your place in your recipient’s inbox.
If you are old enough to remember the 1990’s, you may remember that, prior to the advent of the commercialized internet, the printed catalog ruled the physical mailbox. Imagine if every Shopify or boutique store on the web was delivered to you as a semi-large print magazine, with glossy images, itsy-bitsy copy dedicated to telling you a story about a product or summarizing the features of the same for your entertainment.
For a while, mailboxes all around the US were flooded by prospecting catalog companies that had purchased lists from one another or from list brokers and were trying their luck to expand their audience to meet ever higher business goals. In those days, physical mailboxes were considered an amazing expanding infinite space, capable of taking in as many catalogs and selling publications as could be crammed into them by a mail person.
A physical mailbox has one clear advantage over a digital one. If the mailbox owners are likely to clear the mailbox, entirely, every time they open it. You end up with Mailbox 0 every day, and you don’t have to worry about leaving stray letters or magazines in the mailbox. Normally, you take them all out and you make decisions about them: this one comes inside the house, this one goes straight into the recycling bin. Which selling pieces survive the tired decision making of the mailbox-owners and avoid a trip to the recycling bin is usually determined by three primary elements: whether the mailbox owner knows and expects the company that sent the catalog and whether they consider the selling piece important to them at the moment they look at it. This could be triggered by a headline or an image.
The third element is the mental state of the person while dealing with the mailbox-clearing task: If the person had a lousy day, or been fired, or is having a day where they’ve been contradicted by everyone they’ve talked to, or are simply tired of making decisions all day, chances are, regardless of the brilliance of the images and headlines available in the catalog, that the desire for simplifying life, for making the decision making process as simple as possible, leads the person to take one decision: unless it is a check, or an essential notification of some sort, or a personal letter, everything is going into the recycling bin.
The eyes glaze. The headlines go unread. The beautiful images are unseen. Only the minimum engagement is needed to make that decision.
Who sent it? Is it important? Is it personal? No? Then out it goes.
There may be a bit of a thrill in rejecting all the calls to your attention embedded in the pile of physical mail.
Buy. Read. Watch. Wear. Do.
Not today. (Ha! Owned you!)
Digital mailboxes don’t have the luxury of providing a catalog cover with multiple headlines to increase the chance of a single one grabbing the attention of the inbox holder. You only get one line. And perhaps you get to display your secondary text below it, if the inbox is set up that way. And while most people deal with their physical mailbox only once a day, dealing with an inbox is a constant task during the day and night, a task that is repeated, day after day, like Sisyphus pushing his rock up the hill until the end of time.
This means that you are more likely to find yourself at the wrong end of the same impulse that a physical mailbox owner experiences when decision-exhaustion hits. In the trash bin. Or worse, in a fit of anger, labeled as Spam.
Establishing a relationship cannot be done ‘top down’, with the business taking the ‘top’ and directing the customer to have an enforced relationship with them on the basis of consent to email. Establishing this type of relationship, on a remote basis, with email, requires consensus on both sides on the boundaries and benefits of it.
As customers scan row after row in their inbox, day after day, their eyes glaze over the beautifully thought out subject lines, the emojis crying for attention, and they stop seeing you. They stop looking for you in their inbox.
How can the customer see you in their inbox? How can you get them to seek you out there and smile when they see a message from you?
By treating the recipient’s inbox real estate as a scarce, not infinite, resource.
This isn’t simply a matter of cadence of messages. There are times, as when a purchase has happened, where a customer is happy to receive progress reports of the purchase completion and delivery. The messages received are understood to be like passing road signs that don’t require additional attention or action, but that by appearing in the inbox, help transform a remote purchase into something real.
The problem appears after the first purchase, or the first newsletter signup. Most email marketers assume that because there’s been consent to receive email, there is a relationship there, and they gleefully start piling messages into the inbox like someone who can’t believe their luck that anyone would agree to pay attention to them and now that they have successfully ‘breached your defenses’ they are going to take advantage of that situation until told to stop.
That’s how emails in the inbox get to be ignored, deleted and/or labeled spam. The assumption that consent to email is the establishment of a relationship between recipient and business is simply incorrect.
The relationship still has to be built. Step by step. And it is up to your email marketing to do it.
How do you build that relationship? It is a combination of the number of messages and the approach the messages take. It is possible to test the cadence of messaging using tools to establish how a delivery schedule can be optimized beyond the basics. That is relatively straightforward.
The tougher part is where no tools exist to assist you. The part where you as a business has to build and nurture a relationship with someone who may or may not want it.
The first step, then, is to assume that you have no relationship with the customer, even though you have consent to email. The second step is to assume that consent to email really means consent to test whether a relationship between the two parties could exist. From that point of view, you have to create messages that aim to build that relationship and put it on a solid footing so both sides understand where they are in relation to each other.
One way to do this is view your prospect or paying customer as another version of you. A more evolved version of you. One that you are curious about and want to learn more about simply because you feel that you still have to understand them.
Use your email to greet them and talk to them as that more evolved version of you. The You that you would like to be.
The Zulu greet each other with the word Sawubona. It literally means “I see you, you are important to me and I value you”.
By thinking of your email recipient as a more evolved version of you, you can make your messages carry the Sawubona feeling that you see and value the recipient and that you want to learn about them and understand them better.
Email messages provide the opportunity to demonstrate this state of affairs via text, copy, images and the description of your business actions. By exploring this situation from your side, you may find that the relationship has a good chance to exist and survive over time.
And by using the concept of focusing your emails on a more advanced version of you that you want to learn about and understand, you may find yourself respecting their inbox and modulating the cadence of your messages to meet the shared mutual importance between the two members of the relationship.
It may not always work. Not everyone wants to be close to you. But you improve your odds of success by treating the potential of a relationship as just that, instead of assuming that consent to email means you can fully deploy the tricks to trigger a sale.
Some observations on Content Marketing derived from visits to San Francisco's Chinatown.
When I used to live in the United States, I used to travel to San Francisco for conferences and meetings once or twice per year. I arranged those trips so I would have time to enjoy the city a bit. I like to travel to cities and explore neighborhoods via walking and public transport, whenever possible. San Francisco offered those opportunities, so I had a chance to enjoy many of the things ‘the locals’ enjoy, plus some of the more touristy areas that have a charm of their own even though the majority of visitors are from out of town. One of these areas is the San Francisco Chinatown.
There are a lot of shops in the SF Chinatown. Many of them sell the very same items and Chinese-style ornaments, statuary, toys, small gifts, and other items. Often, these stores stand side by side or across the street from each other. The target audience for them is composed of ‘people from out of town, visiting for a few days or perhaps hours, who want to take home a little ‘something’ from Chinatown so they can talk about it to their friends and/or remind themselves of their time in San Francisco.’ For many of these visitors, San Francisco may be a stop in a ‘trip of a lifetime,’ part of a ‘bucket list’ item for a trip to California, or simply part of their ‘get to know America’ from places like China itself and other parts of Asia.
The competition among shopkeepers to attract customers, one would think, is fierce. Since the target audience is not exposed to their wares on a regular basis, the only part of their business that is likely to win a customer is how the store presents itself: what ‘vibe’ it projects, and whether it feels accessible. The purpose of the arrangement is to inspire trust for the visitor who is browsing a store to check it out.
This situation is very similar to what we find when shopping online. A search engine results page reduces our entire online presence to a ‘bazaar’ setup that makes all of us shopkeepers in a tight environment, struggling to entice someone to click through to our store and engage with us.
Content marketing is the tool we use to stick out in the ‘bazaar’ of search engine results and a way to make it count for us is to ensure it is helpful in the task of creating a leads magnet while at the same time contributing to the overall value of the store’s presence, the ‘vibe’ that can bring people into the shop and have them leave with a purchase and a story, which create an experience that they want to tell others once they have returned home.
In the case of the physical stores in Chinatown, this ‘content-driven marketing’ is done via decoration and interior design (or merchandising, if you want to use the precise term): certain stores just look and feel more interesting and attractive than others. How do they do it? Some bring unusual wooden sculptures, that are not for sale, into the store. These could be dragons, or special images of the Buddah, or some type of large flower arrangement that is striking and serves as the ‘lead magnet’ to bring people exploring into their space. The authenticity, strong detailing, and just impressive character of these unique items bleeds over the other items in the store that are for sale, therefore creating an aura of value for a visitor. The presence of unique items is also an invitation to photograph, or learn the story of the item, which helps cement the experience for the visitor.
Other stores take the time to write explanatory notes about the cultural aspect of the items for sale, to help create a ‘buy something and take it home together with its story’ situation. Patrons who have a chance to read something and perhaps chat with someone at the store about it are more likely to not just purchase, but also remember and mention the experience to their friends.
Yet others use their merchandising literally and cleanly with the mission of delivering items for sale for people who are just curious to come in: These stores feel like a clean and easy to navigate bazaar of merchandise, properly arranged and priced, and inspire confidence via transparency. They try to emulate a store a visitor would find at home, and by bridging that gap with familiarity, they hope to entice those who want a small ‘something’ to take back home but don’t want to work too hard to get it.
For some stores, like a Chinese apothecary, the intention will be to show as strong Chinese culture as possible with as little ‘give’ toward the clientele from out of town as they can get away with. Transparency is the last thing they want to project. They need to project authenticity as their main value: If you are looking for a Chinese herbalist, you want one who is steeped deeply into Chinese culture and whose shop has all the signs in Chinese, without translation. Not only does this feel a little intimidating to a casual visitor, but it enhances the thrill of a visit for someone who is willing to let themselves be challenged by the experience. Not everyone will be willing to buy herbs or potions at a Chinese apothecary, but those who venture in will experience a unique, well coordinated, ‘content-marketing’ approach that will feel authentic.
As with the stores that sell more ‘visitor-friendly’ products, a Chinese apothecary creates value just by having someone walk through it once. The number of interesting unique items, even those not for sale, the interaction with a ‘culture’ that is not your own, and the small thrill of exploring a commercial situation that is very different from what you normally find at home, all contribute to make the ‘content driven’ expression for each type of small shop a valuable part of the business. They help make sales by making each store explore and present a unique angle and so feel authentic. Most shoppers associate ‘authenticity’ with ‘honesty and veracity,’ so these are good goals for the ‘content marketing’ approach.
There is another type of ‘content marketing, however, that is also on show at some stores in the San Francisco Chinatown. That would be the eternal ‘going out of business’ sale.
If the target audience for a shop is composed of people who are unlikely to come back any time soon, then one way to entice people into the shop is with a ‘bargain of a lifetime’ approach. One way to project this out onto the street is via a sign that says: ‘Going out of business.’ This automatically implies to anyone passing by that the store will have discounted items inside to avoid having inventory once the store finally disappears.
For many visitors, even those who walked through Chinatown without any clear intention to buy anything, the potential ‘bargain of a lifetime’ is a difficult gamble to resist. They may be able to find something big and obscure that they can buy relatively cheaply, take home, and tell others about how they took advantage of the opportunity when it presented itself. Every time they look at the object, they will reassure themselves that, not only did they purchase something they can be proud of (vs. a useless trinket from any seller out there), but they did so under circumstances that cannot be repeated: the store is going out of business, after all. No one can go back to San Francisco now and repeat the experience they went through. In other words, by being time-sensitive, it acquires an authenticity of its own.
However, if you, like me, happened to return to Chinatown on a regular basis, but many months apart, you may have noticed that the very same store that was going out of business last year, is still going out of business this year...again!
The ploy is exposed: if you were to know the detail about how the store keeps going out of business all the time, then the purchase, for a visitor, loses all the trappings of authenticity as part of a ‘purchase with a story.’ It merely becomes a transaction, and not a very good one at that, since the ‘discounts’ you can get from a ‘going out of business’ sale are usually the same ones you can get at any other store that is less time-challenged to move its inventory.
Worse, if someone a purchaser knows also buys something at that store, and they share stories, the obvious will come out: no one was going out of business, and they both fell for a pitch that just wanted their money. The item they bought will now not reflect their savvy or their ingenuity. It will represent to them something that was part of a cheat. Likely, the purchase will end up in a basement, or sold at the next garage sale. Out of sight, out of mind.
That type of ‘content marketing’ works as a sales driver, but it depends on single purchases, not repeat business (you can hardly expect repeat business if you say you are going out of business).
This is a risk shared by using time-driven marketing for online stores. It works for certain types of customers, usually, single purchase customers, but does not encourage multiple purchases simply because the target audience would not invite that kind of approach: they derive value from being opportunistic, not from being steady purchasers with a relationship with a brand.
If you rely on limited time sales or coupons to push forward business, you are encouraging opportunism as the main driver of a purchase which is not conducive to regular business and may harm your prospects over time (your customers tell each other to ‘wait for the sale’ to come before you purchase anything). The regularity of the discounting is what they end up looking for, and they abandon you if they find something else that is similar, may cost more, and provides them with a different type of story to tell.
Consider these items when you think about content marketing for your online store, and particularly, with email messaging, which is one of the best ways to bring out your ‘vibe’ to your customers on a regular basis.
See if this sounds familiar:
Going forward, we need to drill down into the customer priorities and engage a deep dive into our big data storage. This action will attack the issues we have found in customer satisfaction, which have not been addressed by our previous representatives. Our stakeholders are concerned about the lack of action in this matter, and want everyone to have a clear idea of the end of play situation we want to create, as well as the leverage we can bring upon the customer to deliver the new numbers that our growth planning requires. Fortunately, our thought leadership research group has come up with a set of actionable ideas that allows all of us to get in the tent and get a group aha effect going, so we are all clear on the end result we are trying to obtain, as quickly as possible.
Once you catch your breath after reading the paragraph above, you may appreciate the importance of verbal clarity when it comes to creating a plan to improve customer value recognition inside a business.
This is why the Digital Customer Investment Plan is called precisely that. It has a purpose that is easy to understand. It does not take a lot of energy on the part of a team to 'get' the objectives the plan provides and the methodology it uses. It should be self-evident. This accessibility, once the plan is created and agreed upon, allows the team to spend its energy focused on the things that matter, and not in getting into endless meetings to discuss 'what it all means' and 'what we are trying to do.'
Organizations that are small or medium sized may find this transition simpler because their focus on the customer may be more accessible to them, with fewer layers to work with and fewer years of history 'of how things are done around here' to work through.
Recognizing customer value may seem obvious, but it can become fragmented because individual areas of the organization view customer value through their own internal lenses. Accounting may view customer value in one way, while sales views a customer in a different, sales-related way, and of course, marketing views the customer in its own particular way.
Over time, this fragmentation sets in and prevents a clear view of the customer as someone who does not attend all the meetings and does not understand the internal history behind this or that decision. This is one way that organizations lose touch with their customer base.
Once this behavior sets in and is organizationally valid, the interests of the customer become secondary to the interests of the individual departmental groups laying claim to the 'real' value of the customer.
The integrated Digital Customer Investment Plan is designed to avoid these issues before they become chronic.
Daniel Loebl is an experienced Marketer focused on expanding the recognition of customer value inside a business and keeps a 'beginner's' mind approach to business problems.