Lancashire Times
Weekend Edition
5:00 AM 6th March 2021

Saturday Essay: Readiness For Ecommerce Is Imperative

The Ascensor Team
The Ascensor Team

Readiness for Ecommerce is imperative says Andrew Firth, MD of Ascensor Digital Agency

An idea can often fail, if proper planning and structure is not in place. This sentiment is particularly true when it comes to Ecommerce.

For many, entry into online retail is a logical progression, for others it’s a do or die decision, but for all it’s a serious business opportunity and one that requires an equivalent level of strategic planning as setting up the business in the first place.

I think the evidence for this is easy to see. The news channels regularly feature examples of major traditional goods and services retailers who have failed to fully embrace Ecommerce, and have been left behind by fresh start-ups or more agile competitors. There is a lot more to achieving success than throwing money at it.

Since 2001, my role has been to help companies across all retail sectors to understand and maximise the value from Ecommerce.

You could argue that online retail started around 1995 and had started to become a mainstream channel by 2000. The Ecommerce model has already had many iterations and yet still I witness examples of firms who have sat on the fence and later regretted not making their businesses ready for Ecommerce sooner.

The transition to online purchasing is not a recent phenomenon, but I believe that the restrictions on high street retailers, caused by the Covid lockdown, has significantly increased its pace.

My observation is that Covid has accelerated the Ecommerce market by five years. Look at your own purchases, how many of these have you made for the first time since non-essential retail closed its doors?

At Ascensor, we have seen enquiries for Ecommerce solutions rise by more than 1,000% during 2020, and these are not just from start-ups, invariably there are many from businesses which could have, and probably should have introduced an Ecommerce offering sooner.

For the past twelve months I have presented to delegates on the University of York PAPI (Products and Process Innovation) program about setting up an Ecommerce operation. My seminar is entitled ‘The Time Is Now’ and each time the program runs I wonder if I should change the name, but I come to the same conclusion - it’s not too late to establish an online retail channel.

I believe that the initial consideration about creating an online presence is a strategic one. It’s important to define the business role of your online channel and, crucially, ensure that you have the right operational model in place. I suggest that this requires high level thinking. Remember, the Ecommerce technology supports the process, not the other way round, so it’s crucial to determine your process as a start point.

One of the key considerations when setting up an Ecommerce operation is the online shop itself, your offering must be fast, easily navigable and convey trust if you’re going to engage and ultimately grow raving fans. In Ecommerce you only get a split second to make a great first impression, and online there is a competitor behind every next click.

For success, it’s vital to take the time to plan the entire customer journey, and the experience that you want to create for them.

This involves a well-defined approach for each element of your site, understanding how you will create trust for your customers and motivate them to buy from you.
There should be a wide range of stages in the online journey.

These will include, for example, clear navigation and compelling page design, product images which arrest your customer’s attention, plus additional media such as close-up photography, video sequences and online FAQs to complete the shopping experience.
Remember, too, the additional information which customers may need to qualify their purchase. Clear and accessible details of dimensions and materials are important for many goods sold online, and will be vital for calculating the cost of postage.

Add in details of ethical sourcing and technical specifications and I think you’ll agree that all customers – ourselves included, need more than a thumbnail picture and a price tag to encourage us to buy online.

Of course, there are many firms who rely on third party marketplaces such as Amazon and Etsy to help showcase their products and provide after sales fulfilment and service. The appeal of third-party channels is that they provide an instant customer base, but I always encourage business owners to consider the value of developing their own online channel.

In addition to hefty commission rates, consider who owns the customer relationship and customer data when solely using a third-party marketplace. Building your own customer base and developing loyalty amongst your satisfied customers are strategic pillars in an Ecommerce plan.

Customer expectations are increasing constantly so it’s important to invest wisely in the design and functionality of your site. When I look at the Ecommerce marketplace, I can see some operators who have created their online retail presence on the philosophy of the minimum effort required. I don’t think that this is a sustainable approach.

Andrew Firth
Andrew Firth
My recommendation is to build and test. Consider a ‘minimum viable presence’ and be able to gather data and feedback on all aspects of the performance of your Ecommerce site. This will include how customers shop on your site, sales values and feedback from customers on the operational and service elements of your proposition.

Gathering and understanding this data means that you will better understand your customers and be able to scale up the breadth and quality of your offer accordingly.

There are some important structural elements of your online proposition, which require close attention, including secure payments and the compliant management of customer data.

It’s also critical to think about the follow-on stages and how to manage your customer’s expectations. For example, create simple and clear processes for despatching your product, and think about all the factors which help re-assure customers, and prevent them having to contact you.

I’d suggest an example is the simple but overlooked process of allowing customers to be able to track their order. This can be provided to customers as a combination of an online portal, where customers can visit to see the progress of their purchase, and automated messages which communicate the key stages with customers and will significantly reduce customer service enquiries.

Today’s customers are empowered, they are firmly in the driving seat and have high expectations from their retailers. For new businesses in this space being mindful of competitor offerings is important.

I always recommend to clients that they conduct a thorough assessment of their competitors’ online propositions. This can help identify some ‘must haves’ in their design as well as areas to work towards as they scale up their Ecommerce offer. The strategic question I encourage clients to ask is “what is your offer and how will it be appealing?”

I think that the key word here is ‘appealing’ and not ‘unique.’ The key to being appealing can lie in a range of well thought out elements to your proposition, including the quality of on-site advice and guidance; clear, navigable ordering and delivery processes, and simple ‘wow’ factors like the care taken in packing and protecting despatched goods, so that your customers are delighted the moment they open their parcel from you.

It’s also important to look beyond your own sector to see how new entrant disruptors are managing their online propositions. Good examples for me would include the online health and wellbeing products sector, as well as the online retailers of domestic energy saving technology.

For these home energy-saving providers, their proposition is about ease and simplicity for their customers. I witness them achieving strong online sales with a proposition which includes easy to understand technical equipment, with the financial and environmental benefits clearly explained for their discerning customers.

The recent revolution in customer online behaviour is embedded. The speed of the transition to online retailing, as a result of Covid, looks set to continue. As consumer behaviour consolidates online, the demands of Ecommerce customers will continue to dominate the plans of regional businesses.

My assessment is a mix of congratulation and caution. For those companies which have embraced the requirements of online trading, well done. Those who have not yet invested in this channel need to remember that confidence needs to be matched by clear planning, to achieve success.

It’s important to recognise the role and strategic contribution of Ecommerce as the effects of Covid continue to impact on retail customer behaviour. Those firms which plan and deliver their Ecommerce capabilities well, will succeed.

When lockdown eases, I believe that the “new normal” will favour even more those companies with a robust Ecommerce capability.

Readiness for Ecommerce should not be confused with investing in a solution that may never get off the ground. This can often happen with ‘out of the box’ technology.

Ecommerce has specific requirements and complexities. I think that wise businesses recognise these and seek expert resources and support. This expertise can help to create a fast, secure and positive customer experience which, even if initially modest, is capable of being scaled, later.

The most useful advice I can give to bricks and mortar businesses that are wavering in their commitment to Ecommerce is “act now.” I remind them that it’s crucial to recognise that those who have left it too late have become business casualties as Ecommerce continues to prevail.

Andrew Firth
Andrew Firth
Andrew Firth is the MD of Ascensor, a digital marketing agency in Leeds, that has been offering website design, development and digital marketing services from large global companies to start up enterprises, and everyone in between, for 13 years. In January 2021 the firm won Best Large Digital Agency of the Year in the Northern Digital Awards.
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