There’s no denying that being a retailer in 2013 is a whole different chapter in the how-to-run-a-successful-store handbook. Your customers used to wander through the aisles of your nicely plotted and polished shop, now they’re asking questions on Facebook, expecting your site to give them all the information they need on whatever device they choose and taking to Twitter to complain when their order takes an extra day to arrive. They know what they want, how they want it and when — and retailers have to adjust.
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As Digital Planet CTO Zane Zietsman explained at this year’s Tech4Africa conference in Johannesburg, these connected consumers don’t respond well to the traditional unidirectional messages traditional retailers try to push at them — they want to choose how they are spoken to, and enter into conversations with brands on their own terms. Zietsman acknowledges the role the internet has played in the changing role of the consumer, but says while “the internet is the catalyst, mobile devices are really driving the consumer behaviour shift”.
The messages retailers send out to their customers can’t be a one-size fits all solution — Zietsman stresses that you have to take your consumer’s needs into account and tailor the messages for them and the specific platform you’re using. Put simply, “it’s about their benefit, not yours.” While your business maybe competing with an incubator full of ecommerce startups with great aspirations and innovative ideas, keeping focused on what your customer needs is more important than trying to outdo the “It’s not about the next big great thing, it’s about doing what’s right for your customer, in your case, based on your customer’s requirements,” says Zietsman.
While that might be simple advice, that doesn’t mean you won’t face challenges running an ecommerce store, whether you’re just starting out or you’re a major bricks-and-mortar retailer transitioning online. Zietsman outlines three main obstacles:
Obstacle 1: misperceptions
There are a lot of inaccuracies and snappy one-liners floating around that you may have come across. How about ‘it’s so cheap and easy to start an ecommerce site — anyone can do it’? Yes, Zietsman says, the price may have come down and ecommerce platforms have become so commoditized that it’s now as easy as installing a plugin and boom! You have an online store. But “that doesn’t determine the success” your online store will have.
Ideas like ‘if you build it they will come’ are misleading — simply setting up a webstore and expecting the orders to come flooding in while you sit around doing nothing is not the secret to a sustainable business. “The time, money and effort it takes to get people to your store (online or physical) is massive,” explains Zietsman.
Another misconception is that consumers only care about prices. But because of the shift in consumer behaviour, the cheapest retailers aren’t automatically the best options. It’s now about convenience, the user experience, the ease of transaction and what your customer’s friends and major influencers are saying about the brand.
Take South African ecommerce darling Yuppiechef for example: it’s not a budget store, but it has its customers so invested in its business that they’re sharing photos of their pets in its packaging. It’s the service, the handwritten card, the experience and the community aspects that make the difference.
Obstacle 2: the mirror effect
It’s not as much of an issue for web-only stores, but physical retailers making the transition need to be mindful of what Zietsman calls ‘the mirror effect’. Online versions of any store (be it mobile or desktop or apps) need to be in sync with the same backend systems and processes as their physical counterparts. It sounds simple, but Zietsman says getting the digital to mirror the analogue is a serious problem for the majority of retailers.
If there’s no link between them, you’ll not only frustrate your customers, but also lose sales, especially in an age where people do research on the online store before visiting the mall, or see something offline and decide to order it online later.
Obstacle 3: infrastructure
Doing business in emerging regions like Africa? This one won’t come as a surprise to you. Infrastructure (be it financial, legal or physical) is probably going to be a headache. If you run an online store, delivery issues can hinder your plans to expand — especially if you are rolling out to new regions and trying to predict how long it will take to deliver orders to customers that aren’t anywhere near what would be considered ‘urban’. Will it still take 1-3 days to get from warehouse to their front door — or are you making promises you can’t keep?
Turn it into an opportunity
Despite the challenges, Zietsman says that the issues themselves aren’t as important, “it’s how you perceive it and how you overcome it.” The only difference between obstacles and opportunities is your attitude. The greatest chance of establishing a sustainable business is application of simple principles, says Zietsman. The businesses that address the clients’ needs with speeds and simplicity — those will win. The ones who push for the next great idea above all else, won’t.
In the words of Twitter / Blogger / Medium co-founder Ev Williams: the internet is “a giant machine designed to give people what they want.” Zietsman says you need to figure out what your consumer wants and give it to them in a convenient way. “Don’t think that ecommerce is a choice that you control,” he says. “It’s very much dependent on your clients and what their wants and needs are.”