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How to beat the UK retail crisis: Proven advice from online sellers

We’ll get the doom and gloom part out of the way before diving into the cheery stuff. First, we’ll have a look at how the UK high street performed over the Xmas period compared to eCommerce. Then we’ll give you some pointers on things you can try for your own business, curated from savvy online biz owners who sailed through the Xmas slump.

 

December 2018 marked the end of the worst year for UK retail in over a decade

How bad was it? Looking at it from a like-for-like viewpoint, sales at physical stores tumbled 1.9% in December (found via Bloomberg).

According to BDO, the worst performers were fashion and lifestyle retailers, “with sales plunging 2% and 3.9% respectively in December.”

Stores were holding their breath, waiting for a surge in sales . . . that just never happened. The last full week before Xmas (that’s usually crammed with stressed-out last-minute shoppers) fizzled out as sales dipped by 4.9%.

Sophie Michael, head of retail and wholesale at BDO said: "Shoppers have exercised extreme caution or shopped strategically online, seeking out discounts rather than visiting bricks-and-mortar stores or making impulse purchases . . .The shopping spree retailers were hoping for in December didn't happen, with only heavy discounting convincing consumers to part with their pounds."

 

How did eCommerce perform over Xmas 2018?

Online sales rose by 11.9% as shoppers chose to do their last-minute shopping from the comfort of their sofas.

There’s no doubt about it: eCommerce will just keep growing and growing. But as Lisa Pham and Will Mathis over at Bloomberg noted, “If shoppers didn’t make it out of the house to do much of their Christmas buying, retailers with a weak web presence will be in trouble.”

So how can your business ride the eCommerce wave without drowning?

 

Proven tips from eCommerce business owners on how to make your online store a success

Instead of throwing together some ideas ourselves, we figured we would just ask some eComm business owners since they’re in the trenches every single day. So we picked up the phone (instead of hiding behind emails like wimps) and called a few of our customers whose businesses did great over Xmas.

An overwhelming majority said they didn’t tackle the Xmas period with any calculated strategy. They were just running and growing their businesses as normal which resulted in success for them. So there are clearly foundational basics to ace in order to see growth.

 

Here are the 11 key insights we gleaned from speaking with our customers:

 

1. Outstanding customer service is for life, not just for Xmas

Yeah, it does sound like an obvious one. But hey, this is an unbiased post showing our findings. And this one came up again and again. The business owners we spoke to said that they focus on offering great service all year around and that continues to serve them well. As in, they don’t make a conscious effort to “ramp up” their customer service standards once Xmas creeps closer.

Basically, if you’re known for great service, people will keep coming back and will recommend you to others which can grow your business for years to come. You could have the lowest prices in the world, but if service sucks, people will go elsewhere. So you need to provide a double whammy of value for money and you know, friendliness and common human decency.

Rob Haywood at The Sign Shed said: “We actively seek to keep our customers happy, through excellent, “down-to-earth” customer service from our base in the heart of Yorkshire. Our prices are extremely competitive and we price-check with our competitors daily to make sure we’re constantly providing the best value for money products. We’ve just introduced bigger automatic discounts on our full product range.”

Rob elaborated further on their high customer service standards: “We won’t compromise on quality. If we’re not 100% happy with something we wouldn’t expect our customers to be.” Great rule to live by!

 

2. Be easily accessible

Offer your customers different ways to get in touch with you. Social media, email, phone, contact form on your website, live chat. However, this can sometimes be a bad idea, depending on each individual business.

Offer as many communication methods as you can realistically handle because it can work against you if you only check social media once a week or you haven’t got the manpower to manage live chat.

 

3. Quick response time

As a rule of thumb, aim to respond on the same day or within 24 hours. It’s also worth managing your customer’s expectations ahead of time. You could put a note on your site about expected response times by your contact form for example.

Making customers aware of any times when you won’t be available, like bank holidays, is also a good idea. It’s much harder to calm people down once they’ve been kept waiting than it is to just make them aware ahead of time!

 

4. Own your mistakes

Be human, swallow your pride and hold your hands up when you’ve messed up. People appreciate honesty. By doing this, you will more than likely not lose many (if any) customers. If you go the other route and refuse to accept blame/apologise with sincerity, that gets customers riled up enough that you’ll probably lose them or need to do more damage control later.

via GIPHY

 

5. Fix mistakes

It’s all very well owning mistakes, but fixing them quickly is important too. This is also a great opportunity to go the extra mile and win back brand loyalty. Send them a small gift or vouchers along with a handwritten note (adds more personal touch than email) to apologise for the inconvenience.

 

6. Keep promises

If you say you’ll email a customer back on Thursday, email them on Thursday. Or earlier. Never later. It looks flaky and unprofessional. And they’ll feel unimportant. Not good for business.

 

7. Personalised service

Get to know your customers. If you’re running a large business, it may not be possible to do this with every single one of them, but make an effort with a few of them and see what happens.

If you’re on the phone with a customer and the conversation turns to general chitchat, take a note of anything significant. Like if they mention their child is graduating next week, jot it down so you don’t forget, then you can ask if they had a good day if you speak to them again soon. They’ll be really touched that you remembered which again, is great for long-term brand loyalty. Guaranteed.

 

8. Listen to what your customers want

Keep in touch with what your customers want from your business. If they mention anything in passing, make a note of it. If it’s a suggestion that comes up a lot, it may be worth considering taking action on it. You could also send out a survey every once in a while to check in and make sure everyone’s happy.

If you show your customers you care about their input and value their suggestions, then you’re making them feel even more important to your business. People like to feel like they matter.

 

9. Fast delivery

This was another big theme in our customer survey/phone marathon. And it’s not surprising. MetaPack found in 2018 that 79% of UK consumers were more than prepared to shell out extra for fast and convenient shipping options. And 58% of shoppers chose one online provider over another because they offered more delivery options. So yeah, it matters.

We spoke to customers who said they always made an effort to get orders out on the same day. One mentioned that even if they got an order 20 mins before closing time, that order would still go out.

Rob over at The Sign Shed said “ . . . our fast turnaround means that in many cases a customer can receive their bespoke signage within 24 hours.”

One of our customers mentioned that they enrolled in Seller Fulfilled Prime last year when asked if there was anything they changed that may have contributed to their high sales figures over Xmas.

If you're not currently offering super speedy delivery, you may be like “ooh, SFP”. But the problem with Seller Fulfilled Prime is that you end up taking on a ton of work and pressure to meet Amazon’s shipping standards yourself. If your resources are already stretched thin, it may not be the best option.

All is not lost though. If you sell smaller items that are lightweight and expensive, then Fulfilled by Amazon is definitely worth looking into. That way, Amazon handles the workload for you and by having small, light items stored in their warehouses, it reduces your fees. Plus you get access to all the Prime members who spend more money. Yay.

We wrote all about Amazon and how to choose your selling methods over here.

 

10. Try risk-free paid advertising

Katie Baker, who owns KJB Models, said that she started using eBay’s promoted listings last year and saw great results. Not only did her business have a great Xmas, but sales were still holding up going into January (which as we all know, is usually when people start to tighten their purse strings).

She said that it can make your head spin a bit, sorting your percentages for the promoted listings and keeping on top of what you’re paying (made more complicated if you’ve got other selling channels to manage too). But ultimately, she believes it’s well worth the effort because at the end of the day, it gets your products in front of buyers who may not have seen them otherwise.

One of the best things about eBay promoted listings is that you’re not making a risky upfront investment (like with Facebook for example). You choose the percentage of the item’s sale price that you want to set aside for the promoted listing and you pay for the ad if or when you make a sale.

To get more info about eBay promoted listings, go here.

 

11. Use software to help you run things smoothly

Disclaimer: We didn’t use bribery to get this response. Scout’s honour.

When we asked Fu Lin at Lindo Guitars if there was anything in particular they did, he said straight away that using our multichannel software to manage orders and stock helped them cope over the busy Xmas period.

He said it helped them manage all of their selling channels and they were able to dispatch orders quickly and easily. He also noted that the customer support team at ChannelGrabber are always accessible and helpful.

We probed a little further because we felt bad that a great wrap-up to this article had just fallen into our laps. So we asked if there was anything else outside of ChannelGrabber that contributed to their success. He said that using social media (Facebook and Instagram in particular) worked well for them too. So here’s a useful link for you about how to use social media to promote your biz.

In all seriousness, multichannel management software does save a bunch of time and keeps everything ticking over with less risk of human error. Quicker order fulfilment times with less mistakes = raving, loyal customers = business growth.

 

Learn more about multichannel order management software

 

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