IT WOULD TAKE A BRAVE AND AMBITIOUS E-COMMERCE BUSINESS TO OUT-AMAZON AMAZON. SO HOW CAN YOU MAKE A SUCCESS OF YOUR ONLINE BUSINESS WITHOUT HUGE ECONOMIES OF SCALE?
The answer may lie not just in what you sell, but what you don’t. At its most simple level, this means keeping to your core offering and not muddying the waters by diversifying wildly into areas that would confuse your customers and prospects.
The business world is littered with stories of product mismatches. One of our favorites is toothpaste brand Colgate’s baffling foray into the frozen food sector back in the 80s. It didn’t end well, although it did end mercifully quickly.
An example of an e-commerce brand getting it right is The Modist (pronounced mode-ist), a women’s high-end fashion brand. Its founder, Ghizlan Guenez, had the idea of concentrating on clothes for the kind of woman who likes to express her style in a fashionable, contemporary but modest way.
Women visiting themodist.com know that they won’t be offered clothing that’s inappropriate to their society or to their own values. As a result, they are an example of an e-commerce site doing great business in the UAE, other Middle Eastern countries and beyond.
Another way of ensuring your site attracts the ‘right’ sort of customer is to concentrate on a limited range of products, or even just one. That way, you can be blissfully focused on your site, your marketing tactics and your goals.
A couple in the US fell in love with the distinctive robes provided by a hotel during a tour of West Texas. Returning home, they decided to share the love via their pun-tastically named website, Highway Robery. What else do they stock? Nothing – just the robes. Founder Evan Streusand said, "We decided from the outset what our aesthetic was going to be, and we've held true to that since day one. What's the old cliché? ‘When you try making something for everyone, it ends up being for no one."
Hair extension specialists Luxy Hair could have diversified into shampoos, brushes and clips, but instead kept to a limited range of products that they know appeals to the majority of their market. This narrow focus hasn’t stopped their annual profits reaching seven figures.
History doesn’t record how many people have abandoned their e-commerce dreams right after calculating how much it would cost to build and crew a factory. But selling doesn’t always mean making, stocking or even mailing.
Dropshipping is an e-commerce model where a customer’s order to an online store is passed straight on to a third-party vendor, who then ships it directly to the customer. The store owner never sees or touches the product. There isn’t even a store. But the rewards can be great.
You choose the products, build the website and look after the marketing. Get it right and you could be like the founder of So Aesthetic, who made US$12k in his first month of trading. Trevor Chapman really hit the big time with his dropshipping business (despite blatantly ignoring our ‘less is more’ advice!), reaching his first US$1m in just 90 days.
Unsurprisingly, not all suppliers are happy to enter into a dropshipping agreement. But the potential is clearly there.
Are you planning to ship globally? Just as Ghizlan Guenez takes care not to stock products that would alienate her customers, e-commerce retailers should be aware of which products are banned or restricted in certain territories.
There are the obvious contentious products such as guns and drugs. The ban on chewing gum in Singapore is well known. But what about baby walkers? Outlawed in Canada. Sodas? If they contain something called BVO, like America’s Mountain Dew, you can’t sell them in Europe or Japan. Wheelbarrows? You’re safe everywhere except Nigeria. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s customs officials keep a watchful eye out for masquerade masks, Valentine’s Day gifts and any greetings cards that play a little tune when you open them.
Exporting globally involves grappling with a whole world of certificates, compliances and complications. Fortunately, help is at hand in the form of country guides on trading internationally.
Unless your products capitalize on their country of origin, such as French cheeses or Peruvian ponchos, you may wish to localize your presence in overseas markets. If so, consider local country codes for your website, such as .au for Australia or .my for Malaysia, and use images that are appropriate to local tastes and sensitivities.
At the very least, you should translate your copy. In a recent survey, 55% of respondents said they would only buy from websites where information was available in their own language. Avoid automatic translation engines, and instead hire a native translator to achieve a more natural, nuanced feel to your copy.