Online merchants often come across as more self-sufficient than other internet-focused professionals, but don't let their independence fool you. A small handful of resources can make the difference between an online shopkeeper's wild success or terrible failure. Online shopkeepers stand to gain much from customers, fellow merchants, and suppliers.
Of course customers are a key resource for online merchants- they buy things! In reality, customers do much more than that. Should you come to see customers as more than a one-dimensional resource, you will find they provide:
- Helpful feedback
- Word of mouth marketing
- Repeat purchases (if they like you and your products)
- Inspiration for new products and designs
- Tips on upcoming trends
- Insights into the outlook, tastes, and lifestyle of your broader target market
To get the most out of your customers, engage with them. Follow them over social media. Chat with them for fun- and not just about your products. Show your customers that you care about them more than you care about their money. In addition to fostering long-term relationships, you will gain far better insights into the mindset and lifestyle of your primary target demographic.
Create content that offers something of value to your customers, such as style tips, recipes, and tutorials. Doing so will improve the experience for your current customers and introduce a larger number of potential customers to your work. Over time, you can develop a loyal following that boosts the overall stability of your business and opens up new opportunities (for example, you might create and sell a book comprised of the awesome content you have shared over time).
Find out what inspires and motivates your customers and build those elements into your products and marketing tactics. See which trends interest your customers and incorporate them into your store. Pay attention to the products customers buy as well as the products they ignore and optimize accordingly.
Give customers a reason to talk about your products. Thank them for leaving kind reviews. Showcase their use of your products on your site. Offer discounts to those who refer new customers. Associate your products with a cause or lifestyle people love to promote and talk about.
When customers complain, don't get angry. Ask yourself why they feel the way they feel and how you can improve your store and services in a manner that can prevent other people from having an unpleasant experience with your store in the future. Not every complaint will be legitimate, but many customer gripes make for great opportunities to improve your store.
Fellow Online Sellers
There is quite a learning curve that accompanies the launch of an online store. Many sellers we have interviewed say they would never have made it were it not for the support of their fellow online merchants, who offer advice on:
- Finding good vendors
- Promoting a store's products
- Photographing and describing products an optimal manner
- Avoiding potential legal or regulatory snafus
- Handling bookkeeping challenges
- Dealing with problem customers
- Troubleshooting technical issues
- Managing time efficiently
To find support from fellow sellers:
- Start with teams or groups that might exist on a third party platform through which you sell
- Search for and join LinkedIn groups relevant to your product type or platform
- Send messages to online sellers you admire asking for advice
Etsy has a particularly active and friendly community complete with forums over which one can chat with fellow sellers, teams one can start or join, and local events one can host or attend. If you have chosen to sell through that platform, definitely consider getting involved. When searching for good seller groups on LinkedIn, use both keywords related to online sales, the specific types of products you sell, and the platforms you use.
Sending messages to admired online merchants can lead to some incredibly valuable relationships. Be upfront about your motives (e.g. to get some helpful insights or advice) and about why you reached out to that seller in particular (e.g. because you sell similar products, because you admire his or her marketing tactics, etc.). Be respectful of their time. Ask short, simple questions. Should you communicate more than twice with a fellow merchant, consider sending tips on resources you have recently discovered and find to be helpful to make your growing relationship one of equitable exchange. Over time, you may play pivotal roles in each other's growth.
If you develop a robust network of online merchant friends over time, consider starting a support group or team of your own- this can be one that revolves around a LinkedIn or Facebook group or even meets in person at a local cafe.
Vendors and Suppliers
Your relationships with suppliers can make or break your online store. Whether you depend on them for components or ready-to-sell stock, make sure that you maintain active contact with representatives and have at least one backup supplier should your primary source fall through at a crucial moment.
Things to look for in a supplier include:
- Fair rates
- Reasonable shipping distances
- Favorable discounts
- Good references from people you know
- Good online reviews
- Good sales representatives
- A staff that treats you with respect (regardless of the size of your online store)
- High quality products (ask if there are samples you might test)
If you are not sure where to start when searching for a vendor:
- Browse sites like Svpply, Tumblr, Pinterest, Amazon, and Etsy for inspiration
- Ask fellow sellers for tips and references
- Check forums relevant to the products you produce (e.g. crafting forums)
If your vendor obviously sources supplies you buy from another company, see if you can find out what that company is and do what you can to buy those supplies in bulk directly from the original source.
If you are deciding between multiple vendors, pay careful attention to cost, and calculate costs accurately. Determine the unit cost charged by each supplier, and be sure to factor in shipping and discounts.
You may have to try several different suppliers before you find the right one. Don't be afraid to shop around and test the waters with multiple sources. Once you have found a good vendor, protect that relationship. Maintain active, positive communication with your top suppliers and consider establishing a bit of a personal connection with supplier representatives as well (e.g. if you are in the area, treat your supplier's representative to lunch, get to know a few things about his or her personal life, and show genuine interest in cultivating a long-term, mutually-beneficial professional relationship). If a supplier's representative knows you personally and understands you to be a loyal client, he or she may go above and beyond to give you excellent service and ensure that your orders are properly handled.
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