An issue many smaller retailers face is when their competition online is their stockists or wholesalers. The desire to grow direct sales whilst keeping stockists and wholesalers happy is a difficult balancing act.
This is particularly prevalent for fashion brands where larger stockists can more often than not, be more competitive on price and offer free or next day delivery. They are also likely to have much higher marketing budgets and be able to promote products to gain a higher percentage of sales.
There are many industry pressures facing smaller retailers today, not least the constant markdowns and discounts made available by big brand retailers, such as Amazon. The dominance of big retailers entices more customers to hunt for the best price, something that is supported by the prevalence of mobile, where customers can compare prices online while shopping on the high street.
Ultimately, the marketplace is one where price is a key influencer, and one that supports big brand retailers. But what does this mean for the smaller retailer who cannot continually offer discounts or offer free/next day delivery as standard, especially if they operate in the premium/luxury space? Are consumers these days only really interested in grabbing a bargain? I think some are, but some are not.
I was chatting to my Dad over Christmas and we were both having a moan about bad service. It got me thinking about how easy it is to remember when you get poor service, but equally you do remember when you get a great service. People are much more likely to remember, recommend and return to businesses that go the extra mile and provide a great experience, which makes you feel valued as a customer, even if their prices are not the cheapest.
This article looks at how I think smaller retailers can compete against the big boys, which in time may negate the need for them to have a wholesale channel at all. We have certainly seen this with one or two of our clients. To build brand awareness and drive revenue during the early years, they need wholesale. But as the business grows and their direct channels to market mature (website, catalogue and so on), they are able to go it alone.
So where to start?
It has to be the customer.
Who is your typical customer?
- Who are they demographically and geographically?
- How often do they buy?
- What are their interests?
- What is important to them?
- What do they like or dislike?
- What are their daily challenges?
These are just a few of the questions you should ask to try understand exactly who your customers are, enabling you to plan and execute an experience that meets, and exceeds, their expectations.
Emotions are always involved in purchases, so recognising and understanding individual customer circumstances, as well as what is important to them will help you provide a more superior service then your stockists.
Think about building relationships
Customer relationships are different to customer experience. Relationships are not with a product or service, they are with a company or even an individual within that company. You therefore need to build trust with your customers and really develop a relationship to incite loyalty. Have a conversation with your customers, engage with them and stay in touch via social media, email marketing, newsletters and catalogues.
Remember that customer journeys are not linear and people are fickle, so investing time building relationships is what will help keep your brand front of mind when customers are thinking about their next purchase.
The next step is to ensure you have a quality product, informative website and a great delivery service.
When customers are actively browsing, one of the most important things they consider is the product itself. Is it good quality? Is it durable? What are the features? What do other people think? Additionally, be sure to let customers know how the product will make them feel or how will it change their daily life for the better. Again, consider the emotional value of the product.
Add value with great content
Create supplementary product content including detailed style and fit guides, inspirational product development stories, trend or seasonally-focused content, product videos, product reviews and so on. The benefits of this kind of information will be two-fold. You are providing rich, quality content to support your natural search visibility, but you are also enticing customers to buy directly on your site. People will always have doubts or questions about products, so if your content can answers these questions, there is no need for them to go elsewhere.
Consider bespoke incentives
If you cannot compete on price, what other incentives can you offer customers e.g. a ‘3 for 2’ offer or a ‘buy one get one half price’? This still reflects a saving to the customer but you are also encouraging people to buy more.
User experience is key
Ensure your website is easy to use and that your checkout process is quick, intuitive and user friendly. If you’ve got them this far, you definitely don’t want to lose the sale!
Add value to your delivery and personalise your packaging
If you cannot offer free or next day delivery, consider what other benefits you can offer as part of your delivery service. Could you text the customer with updates about the status of their delivery? Can you personalise the packaging? Customers love interesting packaging as well as receiving unique offers, small freebies and personalised messaging in their delivery. Use your customer insight to support what is important to them and use this to your advantage.
These are the small things that will make customers feel special and make the purchase a memorable one.
If providing a great product and experience, make sure you offer a loyalty program which can further incentivise customers to come back and buy directly from you. Ensure details are placed in each delivery.
Ensure your problem handling process and service recovery is watertight. This is an important part of building trust, loyalty and brand advocacy. If you do everything to fix a problem (or demonstrate that you are doing everything you can) you will instil a good memory over the negative problem they have encountered.
This customer service needs to be delivered via multiple channels. Customers will complain via Facebook just as readily as they will via your contact number.
Finally, some things to consider when setting up and developing relationships with stockists:
- If possible, release your collections on your site first, and allow at least two weeks exclusivity on your site. This should enable the search engines to index your content as the primary source which should see your retain high natural visibility for product related searches.
- If possible, do not allow stockists to bid on your brand name (or similar derivatives) via paid search.
- Consider limiting the range you sell through stockists, whether this is a limit on product range, or just a limit on selling all product variations.
- Do not give stockists all your product imagery, videos, etc. This will ensure you retain exclusive ownership of your full range of assets.
With all the above being considered, smaller retailers should not feel like they have to compete against their stockists on price or free/next day delivery. Getting a better understanding of your customer, engaging them in relevant ways and nurturing relationships will help you provide an unbeatable experience for them. Only until you know what your customers truly value, can you deliver a memorable and delightful experience that perhaps your stockists don’t.
People don’t tend to remember where they got the cheapest deal last time, but they do remember where they had a truly great customer experience.