Small Business Ecommerce: Now It's Personal

By Julie Knudson | Posted February 04, 2014

Personalization is a growing trend in small business ecommerce, and if you're interested in growing your compnay's online presence you should look for ways to customize each customer's experience. With so many personalization options available, we talked with a couple of experts to discover the best opportunities for small business e-tailers who are ready to tackle personalized ecommerce.

Small Business Ecommerce Strategies

If you want to create a more personalized experience for your customers, you have a host of strategies available—email newsletters and sales alerts, abandoned shopping-cart notifications, product recommendations and customer-specific discount codes, just to name a few.

If you're unsure where to begin, Josh Patrice, director of SEO at Portent, says, "Connecting the in-store and online experience is a great place to start." He points to some of the strategies employed by large clothing retailers, where they accept online coupons in their physical stores, and the mannequins sport the same trendy outfits featured on the website. "You can't get better online/offline crossover than that," Patrice says.

Small businesses that live exclusively online shouldn't despair. Opportunities on the Internet abound for improving the customer experience. "This is where I think the most exciting strategies exist due to the technology we can leverage," Patrice says of Web-only companies.

One personalization method entails using the customer's IP address to tailor the online catalog to their local weather conditions or city-specific items. A more direct approach can also be fruitful, such as giving new customers a brief survey to "discover their style or interests," Patrice explains. "Then, you can cater new products or deals to the shopper." You can also evaluate a customer's previous purchases to suggest related products.

Whether your business is online or has physical locations for customers to visit doesn't matter. Graeme Grant, president and COO of CQuotient, says it's crucial that you personalize your website, because Web pages all tend to look very similar. "Tailoring the experience may include showing customers items specifically recommended for them as they shop around a website," he explains.

It's a tactic large companies employ often, and though they use big systems to determine recommendations based on shopping patterns, it still feels personal to the customer. Grant says that feeling of personal connection is one advantage that small businesses have over large businesses. "It's that level of, 'Hey, they know me.' It's unique, it's personal, it's connected."

What Do SMBs Get Out of This Personalization Effort?

The payoff for developing a more personal ecommerce strategy is multi-layered. Before we talk about sales or customer engagement, Grant says it's important to look at what may be the biggest perk: setting your business apart from the large online retailers so often seen as the go-to place for purchases.

"The problem with small retailers moving online is that they are no longer competing with people in their neighborhood. They are fundamentally competing with Amazon," he explains. It's crucial that small firms give customers a reason to shop with them instead of the Amazons of the world.

"Your core advantage is that you are more personal, more unique and more special, and that has to come through in everything you do," notes Grant. This means more personalized email messages, more unique strategies for presenting products to customers and more "we understand you" communication once the buying experience is done.

We can't look at ecommerce without talking about increasing conversions, getting more sales and boosting revenue. But before you put on your benchmarking hat, Patrice says small business owners should realize the benefits will appear to be primarily for the customer. The tangible benefits are deeper down.  Things like improving customers' experiences on your website and engaging them more fully all reflect back on the bottom line.

"If your customers enjoy shopping your site and they form a strong bond with your brand, products, etc., then they'll buy more items more often," Patrice explains. Happy customers are also more likely to recommend your business to friends. "A good advocate is hard to come by in the online shopping world," Patrice says.

Ecommerce Traps to Avoid

Small business firms should do their best to avoid these common ecommerce pitfalls. Patrice sometimes sees small shop owners try too hard to do too much. "Focus on one thing," he suggests. "If you want to honor your online coupons in-store, then research how to do it, get the equipment needed, plan for the days of the sale, test it out and then go for it." He stresses the need for testing, as what looks like a perfectly executed strategy may yield nothing if it isn't working properly.

It's also common for small businesses to give up on an ecommerce strategy before it's had a chance to really work. Be sure you give yourself enough time to know you've mastered one aspect of your plan before adding a new marketing strategy to the mix.

Consistency is important, according to Grant. "Figure out your voice, figure out that you're going to be personal and relevant, and then do it always." Any ecommerce personalization plan can quickly fall apart if you don't execute your strategy well all the time.

"Consumers receive tons of messages," Grant explains. They won't look at every communication you send them or every personalization feature on your website, but you don't need them to. "You're trying to establish a communication channel," Grant says. "You've got to earn the trust of that communication channel every time, so you've got to be consistent with the strategy."

Julie Knudson is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in technology magazines including BizTech, Processor, and For The Record. She has covered technology issues for publications in other industries, from foodservice to insurance, and she also writes a recurring column in Integrated Systems Contractor magazine.

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