The Novelty of Buying Online is Over + What Brands Should Do About It
Updated: May 23
Back in the Day We Went to Stores
Gather round and let me tell you a story about a time long past. See, it used to be that when our shoes started to fall apart or we wanted the latest style of sneakers, we would walk our physical forms into a physical store and talk to a living fellow human being. The store representative was assumed to be knowledgeable about the wares he or she was selling and the two of you would interact for part of the afternoon to figure out what your budget was, what you were using the thing for, and how to get you in a brand new pair of whatever it was before you went home and watched Frasier. Pretty weird right?
The Rise of Online Retail
Then online shopping happened. In the early days of online retail, creating an online store that actually worked was an epic pain in the ass. It was a new frontier. It took a lot of time and resources. The internet was new, everyone was figuring it out, and the businesses who invested hours upon hours of mental energy and or buttloads of cash to create an even marginally-effective online store struck gold. Consumers reveled in their newfound ability to buy sneakers and books from the comfort of their Ikea furniture - soon also to be bought and sold online.
Online stores generally looked like crap (like most web pages on the internet did during the early days of online retail), but no one cared. The site didn’t have to be pretty; it just had to work.
People who knew how to make online stores knew about technology and websites and code. They didn’t necessarily know anything about what they were selling or how to sell it. Even more likely - they didn’t care because buying online carried so much novelty and convenience that you didn’t really have to sell anyone anything. You just had to present a grid of products on a web page, offer a reasonable price, and not steal people’s credit card information. So, while most big reputable brands stood back to see how this whole internet thing would play out, coders and internet pioneers built the first online stores.
Not too long after that, the blog revolution happened. Making an online store still sucked, but platforms like Wordpress emerged and made it really easy for individuals to make websites and self-publish online. Individuals who did know about products, services, and other stuff stepped in to put their knowledge on the internet and the blogosphere was born.
Special interest blogs, resource pages, web publications, mommy bloggers, etc. swooped in to stake claim to their respective corners of the internet. Instead of selling products directly, they exchanged information for advertising revenue (ads in their articles) or affiliate marketing (links to people who sold relevant products). Brands that were once the authority on their given industry or product in the offline retail world were now competed with by two digital versions of themselves - the part of them that could logistically transact goods online and the people who knew enough about them to earn trust and sell.
At this point, buying something online became a scavenger hunt for the consumer. Want to find a new pair of running shoes? First, you find a blog post or special interest resource page online to help you educate yourself on what to look for when buying new running shoes. Then you set off to find a good website that sold shoes online - usually relying on the algorithm of search engines like Google. Then, you would go back to some unbiased and reputable independent bloggers to find reviews for the products on your short list. It was (and still is to a large degree) a strange, digital Frankenstein version of the offline retail sales experience, where you interacted with a live human who (hopefully) knew about the product, and helped you make a decision so you could check “buy new running shoes” off your paper To Do list.
So what has changed since those early gold rush days of online retail? A lot (but not enough). Now, all of the big brands at least have an online store that looks pretty, represents the look and feel of the brand, and provides a relatively painless checkout process. Thanks to platforms like Shopify, the technical and logistical details of the online shopping experience are no longer a barrier to entry. Startup businesses can sell online for $14 bucks a month and even large scale operations and eCommerce websites with thousands of SKUs can easily be tamed by website solutions that have already anticipated everything needed for successful online transactions and deliveries.
So, if anyone can make a kickass online store, how do you stand out?
The way I see it, this can be done one of two ways:
1. Have a brand people trust.
2. Be an expert in your industry (the second begets the first).
The real power is in being both. People go to a brand because of quality. They also go to a brand because the people who represent it live and breathe their products. They’re trustworthy and they care that you make the right decision on your purchase. AND they stand behind their sale.
Online shopping is smooth and seamless as far as the logistical details, but how does it compare to a retail experience with a sales rep from a reputable brand who knows the product and the competition inside and out? If you ask me, we’re still lagging and brands now have COVID-19 as additional motivation to move their offline retail experience online.
Generally speaking, consumers still have to search for a publication or blog site (wrought with advertisements) to arm themselves with information prior to a sale and then they go to online retailers that are nothing more than cold, online databases with product images and prices to make the sale. The responsibility of the sale has become fragmented; neither party is responsible for the decision of the consumer, nor are they accountable.
Sure, it’s convenient that you can buy your running shoes in a Snuggie in bed at 3am, but is it worth it if no one cares that you made that purchase and if it was right for you? Is it ok that your thoughts are distilled into a customer feedback survey score and that a complaint puts you #246 in line while you’re assured by a synthetic pronunciation of words that your call is very important to it? I’m sorry but that’s not something I want to be a part of.
There is Always an Opportunity if you Know Your Stuff
I believe in this rule and I think it's beautiful. If you know what you’re talking about - and I mean really know your sh!t - and that information is valuable to people, it doesn’t matter if product.com built their online store first. It doesn’t matter if there are incumbents or how they got there - at least not if you broaden your time window. If they don’t know what they’re talking about; if they don’t know as much as you about what they are selling, they will always be at a disadvantage. Now, technology has caught up and online stores aren’t hard. Know what is hard? Knowing what the hell you’re talking about. It takes years of experience and thousands of interactions with people to anticipate needs and make sales that are actually a mutual benefit to all parties involved. I believe it’s time for the reputable brands who have worked in their space for decades (if not centuries) to take online sales back from the people who are just pushing products through tubes at the lowest cost and take consultation back from the "experts" who let advertisers own and skew their so called expertise.
The biggest opportunity I continue to see - and the one we continue to help businesses capitalize on - is the intersection of a strong brand and authoritative content (content that has a purpose and knows what it’s talking about). Everyone talks about content. Content, content, content. Got a problem? Write some content. Don’t think, just crank it out. Some people call this a strategy. It’s not. It’s as much of a strategy as saying “to sell people things you have to say stuff. If you want to sell more - just say more stuff.” People who know their industry and know how to sell don’t just say stuff. They listen, they think, and they say the right stuff.
The Digital Salesperson Analogy
Content strategy is actually very very simple (but don’t tell anyone). It can be grasped in a single analogy. Your website is a digital salesperson. To be good at its job, your digital salesperson needs to have a conversation with your prospective customers. It has to answer their early stage questions, assure their doubts, and get down to brass tacks when they start asking specific buying questions. Here’s the catch. Unlike a human on the sales floor of a retail store, your digital salesperson (aka your website) can’t just react to your prospective customer on the fly. You have to anticipate your customers’ questions and program your digital sales person. Your digital salesperson can only progress the conversation if you have an accessible piece of content on your website for the question your prospect just had. If you don’t have the answer, you clearly don't know your stuff. Your customer just left the store to go to the library to do more research and you just lost the sale.
What’s a Brand to Do?
Now it’s easy to make an online store that doesn’t look like crap and actually works. So what does a brand do now? Kick back and relax and let Shopify do all the work for you? Sorry, but you’re not going to get off that easy. If you want to compete, you still have to be an expert in your craft. And you have to demonstrate that online.
Here’s exactly what you do
What you do is you envision the best possible retail sales experience and you bring it online. Brands need to take the fragmented state of product sales and product education and merge them. Here's how.
If you’re a brand and you know what you’re talking about, here’s what you should do:
1. Figure out what your customers are searching for
Google is the best market research tool we have for getting into the heads of our customers and learning what they want to know. There are tools that tell you what people search and how many times they search those questions per month. It’s like reading customers’ minds. Wouldn’t a retail salesperson want that super power?
2. Find the folks who know your industry best and get content written
Take stock of all the questions and turn each individual question into a page on your website. Blog posts work, but aren’t always ideal when they get buried in a feed and you have to put a timestamp on a question that’s going to be asked frequently for years on end.
3. Upload to your website and make it easy to find
These recommendations are generalized, so don’t get paralyzed by the details. Just get the content on your site. Your answers might appear in Google when users search for them, but they probably have other uses, like when a customer is navigating your website and realizes they don’t know anything about running shoes. Your goal is to make content available when relevant, the same way you would offer information contextually in a conversation with a person in a store.
Let the World Know You’re Worth Trusting
I have a vision for a world where online retail is as pleasing and fulfilling as the best offline, in-person retail experience. I believe businesses must aim to help not just sell. As far as I'm concerned, the sale is earned only once you’ve convinced both yourself and your customer that your product is the best decision for all parties involved. It may sound goody goody and I get everyone needs to make money, but consideration of a broader time window affords the perspective that an unhappy customer is a detriment and that a happy customer is an investment.
To wrap it all up in context of the opening ideas - buying stuff on the internet was a novelty. People who staked their claims first made their money as well they should have. Boldness should be rewarded. BUT, boldness is not the only factor. Eventually, the people who really know their industry enter the mix. And the people who know a cheap parlor trick are pushed out, while those who are responsible enough to see further down the road regain their rightful place.