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Pandemic Highlights Urgent Need for E-COMMERCE

For retailers to be successful, a web presence is as necessary during (and after) the pandemic as it was, well, even before the pandemic.

Pandemic Highlights Urgent Need for E-COMMERCE

PERSONALIZATION RETAILERS WHO SELL ONLINE TRANSFORMED ECONOMIC CHALLENGES INTO PROFITABLE OPPORTUNITIES

By Brian Stanley

For retailers to be successful, a web presence is as necessary during (and after) the pandemic as it was, well, even before the pandemic.

“I can’t imagine doing business without some e-commerce presence,” said Jeff Weidman of Highest Honor Awards & Recognition in Troy, MI. There might be some customer demographic that might choose to bring their business to personalization retailers who don’t have websites, but thriving retailers are hardpressed to think of one.

 

“Today’s businesses need to have a good e-commerce platform for customers to shop. Those who don’t are missing sales and truthfully, in my opinion, being left behind,” agreed Mike Westbrook of Mile High Laser Engraving in Denver, CO.

When the pandemic made in-person shopping impossible in many areas, e-commerce became even more crucial—but it was needed well before 2020.

“The pandemic created opportunities for those who have good e-commerce platforms in place, without a doubt,” Westbrook said.

That doesn’t mean that shops that still don’t sell online can continue to do so after the pandemic.

“To stay competitive, shops need to be up with the times, which means we need to have a good, visually appealing, and easy-to-use e-commerce solution for customers to shop online,” Westbrook said.

PANDEMIC EFFECTS

When the pandemic really struck the United States in March 2020, many states and municipalities shut down nonessential businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Many personalization retailers used that time to update the front pages of their websites, Niels Norby said, to keep their customers informed, including about how rapidly changing shelter-in-place rules would affect their customers’ ability to buy.

Norby ran a very successful personalization retail shop in California before turning the operation over to family so that he could move into the supplier side of the industry. As the owner of NetSoft Studio, he provides e-commerce sites (and other crucial software) to retailers in the awards and personalization industry. NetSoft’s ShopKart is a turnkey solution that gives retailers the ability to sell online with minimal website knowledge or back-end product entry.

Norby’s experience as a retailer who used NetSoft products and now as the supplier of those products gives him a big-picture view of our industry’s e-commerce experience.

Especially in the early days of the pandemic, Norby’s customers posted answers on the front pages of their sites to address customers’ most common questions.

And, boy, did customers have questions: Are you open? What are your temporary hours? How can we get our products from you? Is free shipping offered? Can we do curbside pickup? Is in-store pickup available?

Retailers who either didn’t have a website or didn’t have one they could easily customize would have to address these questions on social media (if they have accounts) or one on one with customers who tried to get through via phone or email. That’s not an efficient model for communication, and it requires some persistence from a customer, which not all shoppers might bother with.

At Mile High Laser Engraving, Westbrook used his shop’s website, Google, and Facebook to communicate how the pandemic was affecting business operations and their efforts to mitigate risk to customers who shopped in person.

 

   Mile High Laser Engraving’s e-commerce site

“Digital communication is the quickest and best means to get messages out to customers today, so shops should be using the tools available to stay in touch,” Westbrook said. Needless to say, Westbrook isn’t skipping any digital opportunities to keep existing customers and welcome new ones.

“(Social media) tools enable shops to react quickly and communicate immediately to our customers and potential customers. We continued to use digital advertising to keep driving customers to our services,” he said.

That meant extra work and expenses, which would deter some shop owners during a tough economic time. But Westbrook knows his efforts were worthwhile. “It worked out well for us,” he said. “We actually increased sales during the pandemic compared to the prior year.”

In Michigan, Highest Honor Awards & Recognition couldn’t let customers shop in person due to COVID-19 restrictions, but “the website allowed our existing customers the opportunity to place their orders,” Weidman said.

 

   Highest Honor Awards & Recognition’s e-commerce site

“We had many inquiries about products, their availability, and if we were fulfilling orders during the pandemic,” he said. Even though Highest Honor’s website identified when a product was out of stock, Weidman said many customers wanted to confirm availability. He said he appreciated the inquiries because it was another form of personal contact, which was very important during that time.

E-COMMERCE RESULTS

Highest Honor sells a lot of sports award in addition to corporate products. With the sports awards market gutted by COVID-19 restrictions, it’s no shock that sales were “down dramatically” for Highest Honor during the pandemic. However, web traffic remained consistent. Customers were coming to the store’s site when they couldn’t come to the physical store, and Weidman and his team were able to see that and know that their customers were still there, interested, and loyal.

Mile High Laser Engraving’s products aren’t dependent on in-person events, so the pandemic didn’t destroy part of their market. In fact, Mile High experienced an increase in web sales during the pandemic.

It’s worth noting that Mile High’s online orders came from across the country. Westbrook said that national reach is another reason e-commerce was already on the rise.

“It used to be the engraving business was more of a local service. With a good e-commerce strategy, you can reach customers all over the country,” he said. “This is a game changer if you’re an engraving shop who sees yourself as a local service. You now have the opportunity to grow your sales via the internet if you’re willing to learn and get into the e-commerce game. You can attract customers from any state.”

E-commerce does create the ability to reach customers almost anywhere from shops almost anywhere. For some personalization retailers who cater to local customers, the idea of a shop with an online presence horning in on their turf is downright offensive. But to many business owners, e-commerce and nationwide online sales are the obvious way to do business and are methods every shop owner should be using. After all, why would you deliberately ignore customers just because they don’t live within a certain distance of your business?

E-commerce isn’t without overhead, either. Just as a traditional retailer might spend on remodeling, sponsorships, or advertising to draw local customers, retailers drumming up more online business might spend on site redesigns, search engine optimization, and digital marketing efforts.

Whether you want to focus on local clients or draw customers from all over, you need to be able to serve those customers online. A web presence is a must to even appear legitimate. And if your site doesn’t offer e-commerce, you’re leaving dollars on the table that you didn’t even know about.

“Most end users expect every business to have a website,” said Norby of NetSoft Studio. “If you do not, you are losing out on business, and if you do not have an e-commerce site, you are losing a lot more business than you realize because people are usually ready to place an order when they see what they want.”

You might be telling yourself that your customers don’t mind calling the number posted on your website. And maybe some of them don’t, but you never know how many people have been ready to buy and then abandoned you when they realized they had to contact you to make a purchase.

“If they have to pick up the phone or write and send an email, chances are they are going to another site where they can order online,” Norby said.

SITE CONSIDERATIONS

Though small businesses are the type of company most likely to think they don’t need a site, Norby feels the principle of having a website as a given is the same for a mom-and-pop shop as it is for the world’s biggest retailer. The pandemic made that even more obvious.

“(Even) Amazon grew during the pandemic,” Norby said. “That should say something about the e-commerce shopping world we live in now. Restaurants that had online ordering apps for carryout did far better than those restaurants that did not offer that convenience. In my mind, the pandemic sped up the convenience of having an online shopping platform.”

Industry retailers saw that, too, as evidenced by an increased interest in NetSoft’s webinars during the pandemic. About 40 percent of NetSoft’s customers attended one of the training and discussion sessions about keeping a product lineup current online, changing the look of a website, and using NetSoft’s online sales platform, ShopKart.

 

   NetSoft Studio’s ShopKart solution

From its inception, NetSoft has been focused on the awards and personalization industry and has supported the industry and our association. But that’s not the only reason customers turn to NetSoft for e-commerce solutions.

“With the nature of the awards and personalization industry, there is a lot of customization, and ShopKart e-commerce sites were built to collect all details of an order,” Norby explained. Anyone who has ordered a personalized product on an e-commerce platform designed for orders of stock products knows why that matters.

Just like some business owners aren’t well versed in e-commerce technology, some of their customers aren’t either, even if they prefer online shopping.

“Some end users of websites are not really tech savvy, so having a well-designed website where end users can find the product they are looking for is really important,” Norby said.

Businesses that launched e-commerce sites also need to think about how easy it is to make changes—from announcing new business procedures during a global emergency to adding new products or changing prices.

Many personalization retailers, including Highest Honor, boosted pandemic sales—and potentially stayed open as essential businesses—by selling personal protective equipment to their website. “Adding products to an e-commerce site can be very time consuming, then as soon as you think you are done, a price increase or additional products come out,” Norby said. That’s one of the reasons he embraced ShopKart when he was a retailer; many industry products were preloaded or could be automatically updated as they were released to reduce each retailer’s workload.

NEW & EXISTING CUSTOMERS

Retailers who launch e-commerce sites may not only welcome new customers who prefer online shopping but also learn that repeat customers may prefer ordering through their website, too.

At Highest Honor, existing customers are responsible for many new online sales. They can place their annual order while looking at 10 times more products than can be on display in the physical showroom.

“Customers get the chance to browse more options, and we have seen that they are willing to upgrade their purchase,” Weidman said.

New customers, too, are using Highest Honor’s site to buy personalized products. “We have received orders from new customers from out of state during this time,” Weidman said. “My assumption is that their local awards retailer was not open for business.”

He may be right, but these orders also might be coming from people whose local retailers are open but not offering e-commerce. In addition to shoppers who prefer buying online, some consumers don’t want to risk COVID-19 exposure from in-store shopping or pickup. Shoppers may assume a store without e-commerce also doesn’t offer nocontact pickup.

Like Highest Honor, Mile High has gained new nonlocal e-commerce customers.

“We’re seeing many more orders coming in from all over the country instead of a more local-oriented online sales funnel, which has been great,” Westbrook shared. “Before we knew a pandemic was coming, we had already invested in updating our visual website presentation. I think this is probably helping us differentiate our shop from many others.”

The look of a website is crucial, Westbrook said. A datedlooking site is likely to turn off people who aren’t already customers, limiting growth. And digital trends move faster than architectural ones, meaning a website will look dated much faster than a physical store’s facade.

“We always say you need to invest the time into your website as if it was your only showroom; it is the first impression people get of your company. It needs to be clean, organized, and easy to use,” Norby said.

SERVING THE CUSTOMER

During the pandemic, e-commerce benefited consumers and businesses alike.

“Those who were already in a position for online sales and business were able to take advantage of the conditions the pandemic created,” Westbrook said. “People felt safer staying in and ordering online. I think the biggest change for us is that we realized we have a much greater online opportunity than we we’re taking full advantage of.”

Personalization retailers have experienced an increase in orders being shipped to buyers, too. For Highest Honor, that has led to an increase in shipping worldwide.

“In the past, most of our online orders were from the local business community. The orders were placed online and then picked up in our store. We have now become shipping specialists. We have shipped to Australia, India, Denmark, and so many other countries,” Weidman said. “Even though the process is not always easy, offering this service to our customers has been a benefit to them and we have seen our value to our customer increase. We have received numerous emails from our clients showering us with gratitude for our efforts in removing this step from their responsibilities.”

Today’s customers are far more comfortable ordering online than customers of 10 years ago, Norby said. And many people who want to try ordering online were forced to do so by the pandemic, Weidman said. That means more future online shoppers.

“I think this demographic has found the online experience to be satisfying and are more willing to purchase online,” Weidman said. The consumers who avoided online shopping in the past are likely to be older; younger consumers tend to embrace online shopping. Eventually, those online shoppers will be the decision makers at companies and organizations that purchase personalized products.

“Our target market is the business community. Those that are getting into that market are younger and less inhibited about buying online. If fact, they prefer it if they never have to speak to a human throughout the entire purchasing process,” Weidman said. “Offering that experience is only going to continue, and we need to make sure that we are ready and provide the tools to fulfill that type of order.”

Retailers who pride themselves on customer service are among those hesitant to offer e-commerce, fearful that the impersonal online experience doesn’t give them a chance to offer their outstanding customer service. But offering customers the ability to shop they way they want is good customer service, too. And personalization retailers have reasons to contact and work with online customers and to dazzle them with service.

“One thing that we hear a lot is that those that do not have an e-commerce website tell us that they want to give that personal attention to the order, to talk to the customer and come up with a design that fits the event and so on,”

Norby said. “Well, you have to get the order first—then you can give them the great customer service. An e-commerce website gets you more orders, and your customer service is what keeps them coming back.” Norby recommends constant communication through email and/or text messages regarding the status of an order or proofing layouts to ensure everything is what the customer wants before an order is produced. Even an automatic acknowledgement can be helpful to customers who aren’t certain a small business received their online order.

‘THE OPPORTUNITY IS HERE’

Online sales continue to be promising for Mile High Laser Engraving.

“We expect by October of this year to have increased our online orders by 90% to 100% from where they are today,” Westbrook said. “The pandemic really helped us realize we’ve left a huge opportunity for national business on the table, and we’re going to be going after that business much more aggressively now and going forward.”

Retailers who didn’t have e-commerce or didn’t pursue online customers can’t fix how they handled the pandemic restrictions, but they can seize opportunities to grow now.

“Now is the time to upgrade and update your e-commerce strategies and business,” Westbrook urged. “The opportunity is here now and should be taken advantage of quickly while people are in the mindset they are currently in. If you’re looking to grow beyond a local business or shop, take advantage of the opportunities the pandemic has presented.”

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