Should I have an online store?

Our contacts at Google (which is obsessed with e-commerce) find this hard to believe, but only about 5% of our clients have an online store. It’s hardly surprising, given the areas in which we specialise. Some of our clients deal in equipment costing six figures, others in production contracts which are equally as valuable. A couple of sales a month can be quite satisfactory. Even those clients who deal in smaller products such as pumps or motors make most of their sales on an application-specific basis, and don’t really want to let their customers make their own product choices without any consultation.

So why would these companies want an online store?

I asked a couple of clients just this question. One sells fairly small electronic components, another large bits of hardware costing over £1000. In both cases, we could see that the online store sales weren’t significant. However, both said they were delighted with things, and felt the investment in time and money had been well worth it.

How so?

We knew the answer really, because we could see the traffic figures in Google Analytics. Firstly, they told us that the store was clearly bringing in a lot of extra traffic to the website, in a way that a conventional ‘brochureware’ site could not. It didn’t take much investigation to see that the online store was reaching parts of Google that the main site was not. Secondly, having the store opened up a whole new (and very productive) advertising opportunity – Google Shopping (the nice ads with photos and prices at the top of search results pages). You can’t do that without an online store.

But what about the possibility of customers buying the wrong stuff, without consultation? Not a problem in practice, they said, and anyway, as orders were fulfilled manually it was easy to ring a new online buyer before despatch to introduce the supplier and confirm that the product was going to be the correct one for their application. Many buyers were just existing customers who obviously preferred the option of buying through an online store, as opposed to ringing up the company as they’d have done in the past. But as the traditional option was still there, why not offer customers the purchasing method they apparently preferred?

Although online orders from previously unknown customers weren’t huge (and it can’t be confirmed that those customers wouldn’t have found the company anyway), both of our clients reckoned that they’d got enough extra sales in the first year to pay for the online store. After that, it was a low cost asset. But they were also convinced that they’d got many more new clients who found the company through the store, then rung up to progress an enquiry through more conventional means. It’s an increasingly compelling argument for having a store.