Businesses of all sizes have been forced to change their business model and adapt to selling online to survive. Almost overnight having an e-commerce strategy went from being something that many small business owners considered "nice to have" to being essential to staying afloat. In fact, according to the new State of Small Business Report from Facebook, more than one-third (36%) of all small businesses reported conducting all of their sales online during the height of quarantine-related shutdowns.
This rapid shift to e-commerce has come with challenges and a steep learning curve. From figuring out a point of sale system, managing inventory, packing and shipping logistics, and cybersecurity, the hurdles that businesses have had to surmount as they ramp up their e-commerce operations is long and complex.
One challenge that hasn't been widely discussed as more businesses make this transition from brick and mortar selling to digitally, however, is the importance of keeping the spirit of a small business intact – even in an online shopping or ordering experience.
Small business owners pride themselves on the attributes that make their business unique, and consumers like going to small businesses for the same reason. Personal attention, genuine connection and differentiated offerings are what make small businesses so great. They are critical to the vibrancy of neighborhoods in communities everywhere, and critical to economic recovery. In fact, according to the SBA's 2020 Small Business Profiles, the nation's 30.7 million small businesses employed nearly 50% of the private workforce.
If personal attention and authenticity is what makes small businesses great, then the important question to answer is how small business owners can retain or replicate what makes them special when translating it to the online shopping experience. How do they ensure that they still have their 'secret sauce' while giving their customers the personal attention that builds and reinforces loyalty – especially when they aren't seeing them in person?
Everyone is looking forward to getting back to main streets as more physical businesses reopen, but online shopping will remain popular. As the holiday season looms, now is the time to perfect the online shopping experience, both to expand your business and engage with customers wherever they happen to be.
For Hrag Kalebjian, owner of Henry's House of Coffee in San Francisco, it's about making sure the customer is happy in store or online. If a new online customer doesn't like the coffee he or she ordered, Kalebjian sends them a different one to try. "They've spent time on my website and gotten to know our story on Facebook and Instagram, and I want to know them, too. I don't make money on the first or second bag of coffee I sell someone online; I make money when they become a customer that comes back again and again."
Here are four more tips from business owners from Texas to Thailand on how they're ensuring they deliver an e-commerce experience that is unique and that connects with the spirit of their small business.
1. Make your social voice distinctively you.
Leveraging social media to let your business's unique voice come through allows you to engage customers in a way that is authentically you. First, of course, make sure your business page and accounts have all of the basics – who you are, what you do, your location, hours, and how people can reach you. And then be yourself! In northern Virginia, Renee Ventrice holds live virtual wine tastings to market her Cork & Keg winery and brewery tour business – kicking back with a saucy local sauvignon blanc and interacting with customers in the chat. As the business reopens for tours, the videos have reached as many as 5,000 views, helping her reach new customers, which has allowed viewers to get to know Ventrice. Ventrice's business is inherently social in nature – drinking and chatting with her customers – so ensuring she was still doing this, even when she couldn't do so in person, was an important way for Renee to maintain a connection with her community.
2. Create an online experience that feels just as personal as the in-store encounter.
Swatara Coffee Company owners Joanna Guldin-Knoll and John Knoll had no idea how important the e-commerce and shipping fulfillment component of their company would prove to be when they launched the business in 2017. This March, while they had to close their physical shop, that part of the business grew 'exponentially,' and they now ship around the world. One key to connecting with customers, both close to home and a world away, is making sure that their website and platforms have the same feeling you'd get walking over the threshold of their shop in Jonestown, Pennsylvania. To do this, they created the "Coffee Shop in a Box" set, which contains a pound of coffee, a curated drink recipe card, gourmet snacks and other goodies. "It gives you a little bit of a coffee shop feel in your own home," said Guldin-Knoll.
3. Inspire your customers.
Coryanne Ettienne, owner of boutique kitchen and pantry retailer Ettiene Market in McKinney, Texas, creates a daily live video, with a focus on offering inspiration rather than selling. Ettienne's videos range from creating a DIY terrarium to using popular Palo Santo incense sticks. Ettienne's strategy has resulted in a significant increase in her store's online sales. As Ettienne continues to consider plans for brick-and-mortar locations, she intends to expand online content and sales efforts, as well as posting helpful and inspirational content for her customers.
4. Deliver customer service that's as personal online as it is in person.
Real-time communications and seamless and personal customer service can go hand in hand, and can go a long way. In 2018, Organicwa Thailand owner Waree Weawwanjit expanded her family's online grocery to offline restaurants in Bangkok and Phuket. When COVID-19 hit, Weawwanjit, like other restaurants, pivoted to delivering her store's goods. Because many customers are 65 and older, Weawwanjit turned to Facebook Messenger, a tool she and her team were already comfortable with to accept customers' orders for takeaway meals. Customers appreciated how easy it was to go back and forth in Messenger. Conversation is the oldest form of commerce, and personal service remains a core component of many great customer experiences. In 30 days, Weawwanjit completed 11,000 orders. Weawwanjit donated a portion of profits to charities buying medical supplies, hand sanitizer and surgical masks for those working on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis.
The list of things to consider when selling online doesn't have to feel daunting – even for businesses that are new to e-commerce. The priority should be the basics initially, and getting started can be easy. You can create an online presence with a Facebook Shop and connect with a company like Stripe to enable payments.
Don't stop there, however. There's so much you can do to differentiate your store and appeal to potential shoppers or stay top of mind with current customers.
Use your new digital platform to showcase your business's personality. Whether it be through using authentic social content, providing fantastic customer service across vast distances, or inspiring your customers and making them cared for, taking these extra steps reinforces what makes your business special and creates loyal, repeat customers.