Time to consider an online store?

Five years ago, I think I’d be right in saying that none of our clients had online stores. Almost without exception, our clients were – and still are – selling technical products and services to a professional market, so that might not be surprising. Of the thirty or so clients who have been with us for the whole of that time, no fewer than eight now have online stores, and I suspect the number will continue to rise. Their stores cover sensors, factory plant, scientific instruments and machinery consumables. There are products in some of these stores with price tags of several thousand pounds. And the products are selling.

I don’t think any of these businesses know how many of the online sales might have been made without the existence of the store. It’s possible that a large proportion of buyers would have contacted the company anyway, and bought by more traditional means. But it’s almost certain that some of the sales simply wouldn’t have happened without the online store, and that the value of these has probably covered the cost of setting it up.

There are two further commercial advantages to having the online store. The first is that we all know new customers are worth far more than their initial orders. If the store can get someone into your world, repeat business can be far more valuable in the medium term.

The second advantage is less obvious, but it’s potentially a much bigger benefit. Many people who want to buy by more traditional methods still like browsing online stores – they just don’t complete the purchase that way. Online stores force businesses to set out their product range in a clear and structured way which most web designers simply fail to replicate. Many car manufacturers, for example, have websites which don’t really make it easy to compare models and options. Hyundai, on the other hand, which is pioneering a ‘click-to-buy’ business, uses the familiar online store layout to make selection and comparison easy.

When I look at the online stores which our clients are running, it’s easy to see this working. As a potential customer, I can browse around the store, home in on the product I want, and compare the variants so much more easily than on a traditional ‘brochureware’ website. Maybe I’ll then pick up the phone to order the product – but no B2B supplier is going to complain about that.

Setting up an online store isn’t hard work any more. It’s easy to find excuses not to have one – usually “oh, all of our sales require technical advice, custom this and custom that”. Other companies are still terrified about showing prices. But do you know what? These are just excuses. One of our clients has only a handful of products in its store, selected from a wide range of offerings. Most businesses have some products which can be ordered without nannying. Another client puts nearly all its products in the online store and lets customers order anything, but follows up most orders with a phone call, before processing, to chat to the customer and ensure the right product has been ordered. All of them seem very happy with the way things have gone. One even claims it’s turned the business around, something very few people can claim for a traditional website.

Discussion

  1. David Laurence

    Our first online store order (from Colombia – not one of our most developed markets !)
    was probably the strongest confirmation we’ve had that all the head scratching,
    hand wringing and self-doubt which online marketing represents is worth the
    effort.

    (..and yes we know the images need sorting if you take a peek !)

  2. Kim Harris

    Chris, I couldn’t agree more with your article. It’s true that our business, networking and communications products, is more “commodity” than many of your customers, but we switched to having an online store about 7 years ago and made the decision to show list prices for almost all our products. Since then, we have had far more enquiries. It makes the process of targeting Google ads much easier and provides the structure for displaying the thousands of SKUs that we deal with. We don’t have to maintain hundreds of static HTML webpages as the store provides the CMS.

    Only about 5% of our sales are actually ordered online but we get more list price sales than you might expect and some of those are for thousands of pounds.

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