E-Commerce Essentials for Small Retailers

Niche Magazine Interviews Thomas Harpointner for eCommerce Insights for Small Retailers This Holiday Shopping Season

(Original print publication date July 7, 2009. Updated: August 2010)

niche_magazine_ecommerce_harpointner_qanda_aismediaOne of the greenest—and smartest— ways to amp up your marketing strategy this year is to create an online presence, or improve your existing one. Electronic marketing will cut down on your paper trail and increase your return on investment for each dollar you spend. We asked Thomas Harpointner, CEO of Interactive Agency, AIS Media in Atlanta, Ga., what small retailers need to know before developing an online strategy.

Q: Why is it important for small businesses to have an effective online strategy, especially in the current economic climate?

A: Operating efficiently is the objective of every business owner today. Taking into consideration that six out of 10 consumers use the Internet as their first choice to research items prior to making their purchases, small businesses must focus their attention on consumer behavior.

Q: What easy steps can a business with a small budget and limited staff take to improve or create its online presence?

A: Any effective online strategy starts with a professional website. From there, the website needs to be properly promoted — online and offline. The website should be properly search engine optimized and routinely updated with timely and relevant content to attract new visitors and keep them coming back. A blog and Facebook fan page can serve as the ideal platforms to publish this content niche_magazine_ecommerce_harpointner_logo_aismedia

Next, visitors should be encouraged to subscribe to an email newsletter, become a Facebook fan or to follow via Twitter. As the number of subscribers, fans and followers continues grows, messages and offers crafted and aimed at this audience will deliver greater impact and measurable results.

Q: What common mistakes do businesses make when creating their online marketing strategies?

A: A lot of businesses take an “all-or-nothing” approach with their marketing strategies. This prevents many businesses from going online. The best approach is a multiphase strategy. Rolling out an online campaign in several phases, closely following consumer trends, and measuring and maximizing performance will ultimately yield a higher ROI.

Q: Can e-mail, e-newsletters and websites take the place of a direct marketing campaign?

A: With the cost of postage rapidly climbing and green initiatives taking foothold, electronic communications are the future of business. More relevant to today’s economy is the lower cost; e-mail and online marketing are easy to measure, modify and distribute at typically a lower cost and higher ROI than most traditional marketing channels. It’s important to recognize however that e-mail, e-newsletters and websites are in fact direct marketing — it’s just in a different format. The need for effective design, copy writing and a great offer with a clear call to action (CTA) still exists and the professionals required to create it will continue to remain in high demand.

Q: How has the current economic climate changed the way that small retailers are doing business online?

A: William Lever, founder of Lever Brothers soap manufacturing company in 1886 (today Unilever), then said, “I know half my advertising isn’t working, I just don’t know which half.” Many retailers still share that same frustration today. But it doesn’t have to be that way. While performance of most traditional advertising may be difficult to measure, the performance of interactive marketing can be fully measured and optimized. But properly implementing the right analytic systems, interpreting the data and optimizing online marketing performance can be a complex task which is best left to professionals. Therefore, many retailers are shifting budgets away from traditional advertising to properly fund their online initiatives.

Search engine marketing and email marketing still remain on the top of most retailers’ online marketing strategies. Social media marketing, however, is quickly gaining momentum as retailers recognize its potential viral power.

Q: How can a brick-and-mortar location and a strong online presence work together and benefit each other?

A: Studies show that the Internet influences more than $3 of in-store sales for every dollar spent online. The key is effective cross-channel marketing where both the online and offline stores promote one another. Email marketing, social media and search engine optimization are the three most important online marketing tactics any retailer today should deploy — in addition the e-commerce website of course. It’s important to routinely deliver fresh, highly relevant and consistent content across all online channels to encourage online research while offering the convenience of in-store purchasing.

Q: Is an e-commerce site an essential part of a small retailer’s online strategy?

A: Yes. Although many consumers research products online and untimately make their purchase in a retail store, retailers that provide customers the option and convenience of completing their purchase online are positioning themselves to earn greater profits. The e-commerce website should mimic the brick-and-mortar experience in terms of design, inventory, and promotions.

Q: Is it possible for small retailers who decide not to develop an online presence to thrive in the coming years?

A: It’s unlikely. About 9 in 10 consumers today do their research online before making their purchase. Small retailers, especially those that have a local or hyperlocal presence, that do not have an e-commerce website and an effective interactive marketing program will continue to lose customers to more forward-thinking competitors. Small retailers that do embrace online shopping however, can substantially increase their footprint and growth revenues by expanding their customer base beyond the reach of a traditional retail store.

What are your thoughts on this topic?