How E-commerce Helps Small Businesses Go Global

Digital commerce is all the rage in a pandemic world


The Defining 90s

The year was 1991. The World Wide Web was introduced. Later in 1994 the first browser, Netscape was launched to access the internet effectively. These two innovations triggered mass adaptation of E-commerce back in the mid-1990s. In 1995 Bezos launched Amazon and later in 1998 Omidyar launched eBay. The world of retail was never the same again. E-commerce disrupted the traditional business models in retail. It not only took away a few barriers to entry but also eased out a couple of significant shortcomings in the traditional retail model resulting in a level playing field for an incumbent.

Who is This Article for?

In this article, we will identify a key factor among many others that drive growth in E-commerce from the perspective of SMBs who are selling through:
E-commerce marketplaces such as Amazon, Flipkart
Social commerce platforms such as Facebook marketplace, Meesho etc, or
its own E-commerce sites.

Why E-commerce?

Before we dig deeper into the growth factors let’s summarise the top three benefits of the E-commerce model comparing and contrasting it with traditional brick and mortar retail.

Discovery

E-commerce platforms allow a buyer to discover the merchandise of her preference like no other physical store can offer because of two reasons. First, the online nature of the catalogue allows a repository of unlimited inventory of items. This enables the discovery of even a niche or low-frequency purchase product to be available in the online store offering a high degree of variety to a buyer. Second, the instant search capability of an eCommerce platform allows the buyer to get to her preferred merchandise in a fraction of a second. Unlimited catalogue and an efficient search function make eCommerce format the king in the long tail of retail. There is a discovery of another kind that triggers purchase actions: price, a significant decision point for a buyer before making a purchase. E-commerce sites allow for easy comparison of merchandise within and across platforms (comparison sites). In traditional retail, this would require significant legwork.

Convenience

E-commerce happens remotely, from the comfort of our homes, offices or even while on the go through mobile commerce. The ease of discovery, ordering, payment, tracking delivery and customer support through chat, email, call 24×7 makes the customer truly the king from the perspective of convenience. Traditional retail doesn’t have such a degree of convenience.

Quality

Most E-commerce platforms and marketplaces have well-defined processes for grievance redressal, returns, refunds and disputes. Moreover, customers are encouraged to publicly rate and review every transaction on product quality, experience of after-purchase customer care to enable transparency and trust on the platform for both the seller and the buyer. This acts as social proof and fuels growth for the deserved one.

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Unlimited catalogue and an efficient search function make eCommerce format the king in the long tail of retail.

Challenges in Growing an E-commerce Business

Since E-commerce technology has lowered the barriers to entry of incumbents by creating a level playing field, the result is fierce competition among sellers. Though it is good news for the buyer, the seller struggles to earn the loyalty of buyers. The unlimited choices of sellers in front of the buyer coupled with instant price discovery have made the buyer extremely demanding on quality as well as price.

What’s concerning the sellers in this scenario you may ask? Such competition often ends in a price war amongst sellers. As we know a price war triggers a vicious cycle of lowering and further lowering of prices to beat the competition to secure orders until it becomes completely unviable.

Moreover, acquiring a new customer attracts a cost called a Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC). These are marketing expenses such as ads, offers & promotions associated with acquiring new customers. Now, the total estimated amount a customer will purchase in her (purchase) lifetime is called a Customer Lifetime Value or CLV. If CLV is significantly more than CAC, the seller is in good shape, otherwise, she has a reason to be concerned.

For a seller, the key question is as follows: How do we earn the loyalty of demanding, price-sensitive discount shoppers? How do we acquire and retain customers?

Here are my thoughts on this. If the product you are selling is a commodity meaning the product does not offer any opportunity to make it unique, price will always be the dominant decision factor for purchase. In such a case a seller is left with few other levers such as prompt delivery, bulk discounts, great ordering and after sale experience etc. If your merchandise has some uniqueness or you can ethically make it appear unique you have created an advantage.

But whatever product you sell, the one factor you can not ignore is Customer Engagement.

Why Higher Customer Engagement Leads to Higher Growth

Customer Engagement can be defined as the degree of involvement your customers have with your brand. It is built through various ways, channels including social platforms through which your customers interact with your brand. Every interaction is an opportunity for the brand to build engagement.

Why care about this? Because customers who feel a higher engagement with your brand:

  • Come back for repeat purchases hence have a higher LTV,
  • Spread the word and refer others to your brand hence lower CAC, and
  • Are easy to retain. All these three means profitable organic growth.

A recent Gallup survey revealed “customers who are fully engaged represent a 23% premium in terms of share of wallet, profitability, revenue, and relationship growth over the average customer.” 

So far, we realise that the one factor that fuels growth in ecommerce is customer engagement. How do we build it, you may ask? Let’s address this question.

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You don’t have to sell everything to anybody and everybody. By using storytelling, and a meaningful narrative you can find your niche.

Here are Seven Ways to Improve Customer Engagement Hence Growth

Step 1: Build an engaged customer base

1. People buy, first your story then your product
Therefore, build an overarching narrative of your brand. This is where you make the promise. This should answer questions such as why care about your brand? Why buy from you? Why now? Be consistent with the story you tell the world. Remember consistency builds trust. And trust leads to engagement. Therefore, content is key.

2. Deliver what you promise consistently
None likes to be short-changed. When we get what we were promised we build trust. When we get a little more than we expected we become a fan. Be authentic, transparent & ethical about your processes right from design, sourcing, manufacturing, packaging and distribution. These days people do care about sustainability and ethics in business.

3. Leverage the power of design
Design the language of the brand not only the processes. Use the power of design in crafting great discovery, onboarding, ordering, payment, and grievance redressal for the user and/or customer. Design for delight not just delivery. For example, if you are selling house paint don’t just sell the paint, help the user throughout the customer journey from discovery, selection, price before ordering the product.

4. Embed higher empathy in customers relationships and after-sales services
Every interaction of a customer with your systems, processes and people is an opportunity to invest into customer engagement. Hence it makes sense to revisit all such opportunities from order confirmation, to return & refund policies, aftersales and grievance redressal system to reflect empathy and fairness. Empower the customer relationship management team with proper training, and instil ownership. When not sure about facts give the customer the benefit of doubt.

Step 2: Guard what you have built

5. Put in place a robust risk management process. This should include online reputation risk management.
Now, that you have built a decent reputation and an engaged customer base take all the measures to protect it. Like a garden requires careful and caring eyes of a gardener your tribe needs to be taken care of and nurtured. Monitor the voice of customers in reviews, social media mentions, besides internal measures such as customer satisfaction scores and returns, refunds and other retention metrics. Have an ORM tool in place so that your team gets alerts on wherever someone mentions your brand in social media or the internet in general.

Step 3: Nurture your tribe

6. Build/find a tribe around your brand
Ecommerce enables the longtail of retail. Therefore, it is about finding your tribe. You don’t have to sell everything to anybody and everybody. By using storytelling, and a meaningful narrative you can find your niche. Once they come to you give them a reason to keep buying from you beyond obvious product usage. It could be a social cause, sustainability, a hobby or a special interest group etc. Contrary to the conventional belief, the more specific the narrative the better.

7. Pamper your tribe on every opportunity
People might come to you because of your narrative but they would not stay unless you deliver what you promise in your narrative. Deliver not once or twice but every day, consistently, incessantly. This will further reinforce your original narrative and trigger a virtuous cycle. As a result, more people will flock to your brand.

Time to time you have to share some reward to your tribe not as a lure to keep them with you but as a genuine appreciation of the trust they have put into your brand. You may personalise some offers using opportunities such as birthdays, and anniversaries just to give you an example. Be creative in keeping in touch with your community meaningfully through emails and social media. Do not spam them with generic promotions rather share something they might care about. And before you know, buying from you and being in your tribe would become a statement of meaning for the Buyers.

Summary

Ecommerce has brought in enormous value for the SMBs over the years. However, driving growth with ecommerce requires a thorough understanding of the underlying factors. By looking closely, we find that Customer Engagement is the single most significant driver of growth in this context. We further explored seven more important dimensions that would help us build, guard and nurture an engaged customer base.

Avijit Dutta
Avijit Dutta
Avijit is a seasoned industry expert and a sharp strategist. Alumnus of Jadavpur University and IIM Bangalore he writes on innovation and entrepreneurship.

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