The idea that a large retailer doesn’t already have an ecommerce footprint in 2013 probably comes as a surprise to most people, but it’s true. T.J. Maxx, one of the fastest-growing retailers in the clothing industry, for example, recently announced plans to open an online store this year, as did its rival, Saks Fifth Avenue’s Off Fifth discount-clothing outlet.
Retail is a turbulent industry, of course, and discount retail can be even more muddled, particularly online. Creating an ecommerce store is a laborious process, requiring attention to specific details that do not apply to physical outlets, for example inventory software. T.J. Maxx found this out the hard way several years ago, when it shut down its first ecommerce attempt after a year of sluggish sales.
If at first you don’t succeed, however, you can always learn from your mistakes — and from the successes and failures of others. As with any new enterprise, there will be hiccups along the way, but the potential for huge revenue growth and an expanding audience is well worth the trouble of opening an Internet outlet.
Plus, T.J. Maxx and other brick-and-mortar merchants trying to transition into omnichannel retailers can benefit from the lessons of all those stores that came before them. To help these retailers in their efforts, we offer the following guidelines.
Play to your strengths
You should already know what keeps your customers coming back time after time; put that knowledge to use when building your online store. T.J. Maxx customers, for instance, like to browse methodically through racks of clothes in specific aisles, hunting for that special “steal.” The retail website should replicate that experience, allowing shoppers to move easily from one item to the next. Expand your customer relationship management (CRM) strategy to embrace the full range of online tactics, including email, text messaging, mobile apps and more.
Play to your customers’ interests
People shop at T.J. Maxx because they’re cost-conscious and they expect to find low prices in-store. Low prices are a-dime-a-dozen online, though, so a retailer like T.J. Maxx should implement a loyalty program that encourages consumers to return and rewards them for multiple online purchases. Research your customers’ behavior at your physical locations so you can tailor your online marketing messages to match their specific needs and interests.
Give your customers what they expect — i.e., free shipping
These days, free shipping is such a standard online offer that it hardly qualifies as a “perk” anymore. According to comScore, 51% of online consumers who abandon their carts do so because their purchase didn’t qualify for free shipping. When Amazon introduced its Prime product in 2005, which offers pre-paid shipping for an annual fee, it essentially created a reliable, expanding base of pre-satisfied customers who helped turn the company into the dominant Internet retailer in the world.
It may seem that offering free shipping will cost your company money, but a well-built free-shipping program can actually enhance your bottom line. In fact, research shows that pre-paid shipping triples a consumer’s average order, and it more than doubles the average number of orders that a consumer makes. Surely, the revenue generated from such increases in orders will more than compensate for whatever shipping revenue you may lose.
Give your customers what they know
As much as possible, your online environment should mirror your physical location(s): the same departments, layout concepts, colors, even the same logo treatments. You want your customers’ experience on your website to match the experience they enjoy in your stores; if you organize, say, women’s clothes in a particular way in your brick-and-mortar stores, be sure to organize them the same way online.
Market globally, message locally
Develop an integrated marketing strategy to promote every avenue of your retail operations: physical stores, websites, catalogs,etc. Appeal to as wide an audience as possible through your broader communications channels (home-page banners, for example). Analyze in-store and online shopping data to customize email messages and text alerts for specific groups and/or individual consumers, notifying them of upcoming sales and ongoing deals and letting them know when items of potential interest to them will be available.
Engage your audience
Don’t just talk to your customers — listen to them. The best online retailers treat the Internet as a two-way street. Find out what your audience thinks by seeking their input, requesting their feedback, and asking them to review your products, your processes, and your professionalism. What you learn may surprise you (pleasantly or otherwise).
Expanding from a solely brick-and-mortar store to an online retail outlet might seem like a daunting task, but the good news is that if you’ve succeeded on land, you’re well-positioned to succeed in cyberspace. The same rule that applies in-store applies online as well: a great product will bring customers in, and a great experience will bring customers back.
Tom Caporaso is CEO of Clarus Marketing.