The Secret to Driving Sales
Products don't sell themselves. Many online merchants drive sales by gaining a first-mover advantage, leveraging existing audiences, selling through multiple storefronts, choosing smart prices, and making their work ubiquitous.
Gaining First-Mover Advantages as an Online Merchant
As with so many professional ventures, those who meet an unmet demand are more likely to succeed. If you see an opportunity for a new product, take it.
Let's say you have always loved pets and have a knack for sewing. One fine afternoon, you hear from your friends about an upcoming movie featuring pets in the fashion industry that will be full of hilarious runway scenes in which leading pet stars flaunt haute couture. Realizing there could be an opportunity here, you get to work building up an arsenal of gorgeous (yet safe and comfortable) high fashion outfits for cats and dogs of all sizes.
When the movie comes out, there is a short-term media frenzy over fashionable pets, during which you take advantage of your preparation to reach out to the news channels and major publications. Some media outlets bite, and through them, you showcase your pet-friendly couture. Purchases and special orders flood in. In the months that come, new competitors emerge and demand ebbs, but you still make regular sales. Why? Three reasons:
- People heard about you: When the concept of haute couture for pets first emerged, you were seen as the ultimate expert and got the most attention (later entrants are rarely able to drive the same level of interest)
- You offer the "original" product: People who want a "premium product" or the "real thing" will come to you, because you were the first to produce it
- You have built up customer loyalty: Anyone who had to have haute couture for their pets right away came to you; so long as you gave them a good experience and still provide a good variety of attractive products, they will be likely to return to your shop when making second and third purchases (competitors can build up customer loyalty, too, but if you get to most of the customers first, they have less of a chance to do so)
Starting With an Audience (or Gaining One Over Time)
You will have a much easier time selling to customers if they already know you and trust your good judgment. Many online merchants enjoy strong starts because, before even considering online sales, they built up a large fan base online through a blog, podcast, book, or YouTube channel.
Most of us are familiar with cooking show stars who have gone on to sell cookbooks and special cooking implements, or sports and fitness stars who go on to sell sporing equipment and weight loss programs. A similar path can be followed by first gaining some level of online fame (however more subtle it may be).
Consider the products you want to sell, your target market, and where your ideal customers are likely to hang out. Evaluate your personal interest in subjects related to your product and your ability to create high quality content. Does kicking off a blog or video series related to your products sound like an enjoyable activity- something you would be willing to do even with uncertain payoff? If it does, consider giving this a try. It would, however, not be advisable to start a blog, podcast, or video series if (1) it seems more like a chore than a hobby, and (2) you would only talk about your products, and not provide unique, valuable information that would be interesting even to those who have no interest in buying things from you.
Getting Traffic from Casual Internet Surfers
If you don't yet have an audience or reputation, you will have to depend on a great deal of chance when garnering your first customers. You can increase the odds of your products and store-related content being found by chance if you optimize it for search engines. For information about basic elements of search-friendly content, read our introductory guide to SEO.
Getting Coverage Elsewhere Online
In addition to creating content of your own, you may want to encourage others to cover your store. An endorsement from an influential blogger or online celebrity can do wonders for your business. Consider sending free samples or gifts of your products to those who influence or reach your target market, and ask them for feedback. As with your customers, work on cultivating genuine relationships with those who might promote your brand.
Give your customers a reason to promote your products. Consider running product giveaways awarding those who post content about creative or cool uses of your products. Offer perks to those who refer new shoppers to your site. Tie your products in with the latest trends or other hot button issues that people are buzzing about online. Give your products context and relevance that makes them worth discussing. And consider pitching articles related to your expertise as a shopkeeper (e.g. "10 Trends in Pet Wear") to relevant publications that enjoy broad readership.
The Benefits of Selling through Multiple Storefronts
Though doing so adds complexity to your dealings, we highly recommend selling through multiple storefronts. Doing so:
- Gives you access to a third party selling platform's built-in audience
- Caters to customers' different online discovery methods and shopping preferences
- Gives your store's products and brands higher visibility
- Increases the odds that customers can find more favorable shipping rates (should your products come directly from a produce-on-demand platform)
If you run a shop through which you manage stock, packaging, and shipping independently, selling through multiple storefronts will require extra coordination and care, as you will need to be able to monitor orders and customer inquiries from multiple sources instead of one. You may need to spend a significant amount of time testing different products on different platforms, seeing what sells better through different online locations.
The multiple shop approach is far easier if you utilize produce-on-demand services and only apply your unique designs to a site's product. The biggest consideration you should keep in mind when selling through multiple on-demand sites is pricing. Try to keep your products' prices fairly uniform across different storefronts. If one site constrains your pricing choices, consider offering slightly different designs, so that a customer will never find a new shop with less expensive versions of a product they bought for a higher price elsewhere.
Why Raising Prices Might be a Good Thing
Many fledgling online merchants assume that the only way they will succeed is by keeping prices as low as possible. For some product types and marketplaces, this wisdom holds true, but the scenario is by no means ubiquitous.
In many cases, raising prices might actually increase your number of sales. Many sites' product listings are filtered by price, and customers looking for high quality products often filter out the lowest price ranges. Generally speaking, higher prices suggest that a product has better quality. Many people feel more comfortable purchasing a slightly more expensive version of a product because they feel they'll be getting something superior.
Consider incrementally raising your prices to see how they affect sales. If a higher price boosts sales, incrementally raise it at reasonable intervals until higher prices no longer positively affect profits. Avoid jacking up your prices drastically, suddenly, or over short periods of time; this may create a bad experience for customers.
Branding Tips for Online Shopkeepers
Social media has emerged as a pivotal tool for online shopkeepers- especially with regard to building strong relationships with customers and conducting independent market research. Excellent customer relationships will only help to boost word of mouth marketing, and the better you know your customers, the better you can refine your products and brand in a manner that caters to their needs and interests.
Once you have cultivated a strong brand that appeals to your target market, do not compromise it in favor of one-off requests. Should you, for example, sell elaborate, chic, handmade hats, it would not be wise to cater to a customer who wants you to create a super tacky parody of a hat for an ironic costume party. Should you create and sell this tacky hat, and should people come to associate it with your brand, your carefully-constructed image of a stylish and classy hat shop owner will be shattered. More people might come to you asking for tacky, comically-hideous hats, and those in the market for classy chapeaus will see your besmirched reputation and look elsewhere.
Should a customer ask you for a product or customization that runs contrary to your brand, suggest a modification of that request that does fit within your brand, or recommend an excellent seller who is better equipped to meet his or her needs. Be courteous and polite, but firm. So long as you help a prospective customer get what hr or she wants (whether it is with you or someone else), you will make no major misstep.
On Building a Loyal Client Base
Loyal clients can bring stability and new business. The more you have, the more likely you will be to succeed over the long run. Shopkeepers we interviewed have found the following features to do wonders when it comes to customer loyalty and satisfaction:
- Fast response times to customer inquiry messages (many merchants make a point of always responding within 60 minutes during business hours)
- Clear, courteous, and frequent communication
- Customizable products
- Out-of-the-blue messages to valuable repeat customers when you stock something that might be of interest to them (or even discover something of interest in another store)
- Multiple shipping options (including expedited shipping)
- Attractive packaging complete with personal notes
Merchants have also found success by connecting to customers on a more personal level by letting their personalities and identities shine through. Customers regard online shops very differently when they can connect them to a friendly face and some backstory, and will be more likely to return to a store run by someone they consider to be a friendly acquaintance than a store that is apparently devoid of human involvement. A store backed up by a kind and fun shopkeeper is also more likely to get politely-worded customer complaints and kind reviews (it is far easier to hate a faceless brand than, say, a stay-at-home mother who likes to work on her handmade goods from a sunny craft room).
How to Build Sustainable Prices
When creating prices for your products, factor in:
- Cost of Goods Sold
- The time it took to create a product (multiplied by your fair hourly wage)
- Overhead (space you rent for work- or your monthly bills at home)
- Demand for a given product
- Prices others are charging for that product
As mentioned above, it might be wise to experiment with prices over time, raising them in gentle increments until they negatively affect total profits (it's not all that bad if total sales decrease, especially if you're still making more money- this just means you have more time to make higher quality products for fewer people).
The Importance of Monitoring Your Performance
Customers' reactions to product prices should be just one of many things you monitor about your online store. Also keep careful tabs on:
- Expenses versus profits
- Where your customers come from
- Products that sell the most
- Products that sell the least
- How tweaks in presentation (images, copy, positioning) affect product sales
- The performance of any online ad campaigns you pay for
- The performance (or lack thereof) of any sales or social media campaigns you run
- Whether media coverage through a particular outlet leads to a measurable increase in sales
- Whether social media activity contributes significant traffic to your online store
- Whether people are actively engaging with your Facebook page, Twitter account, and Pinterest boards (this will help you determine whether social media activity on various platforms is really worth your time)
- Where people spend the most time on your site and when people typically click away (this is easy to do should you be set up on Google Analytics)
- What people are saying about you on social media and on the internet in general
Monitoring chatter about your shop online is crucial whether you decide to maintain a presence on mainstream social networks or not. While Google Analytics (and some other analytics and social media monitoring solutions) have features that enable you to monitor some social media chatter about your store and its products, you may gain a more thorough understanding of your business's reputation independently by:
- Setting up Google Alerts for your store's name and special names given to your products
- Typing the URL of your site into Twitter's search bar to see what people say when sharing links to your store
- See what has been pinned from your website onto people's Pinterest boards by visiting http://pinterest.com/source/YourOnlineShopDomain.com/
- Searching for keywords related to your store via Google Search and on Twitter
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