• Alison Folwell

5 key differences between online and offline shoppers

Ecommerce is growing fast in the merchant sector as an increasing number of merchant businesses add webshops and click and collect services to their websites. But there are a number of ways that shopping habits will differ on- and offline, and you’ll need to be prepared. There are big opportunities with online trading but there is more to keeping online customers happy than you might think.

So if you want to make sure you’re not only reaching new customers but keeping them coming back for more, we’ve got some top tips for you.

1. Customers shop around more (and can be less loyal)

Comparing pricing, product information and availability is much easier online and customers are much more likely to be shopping around to find a better deal. That basically means that online shoppers are usually less loyal to one particular merchant – they are more fickle and likely to go to multiple places for their purchases unless given good reasons not to.

The opportunity here is that if you CAN keep a customer happy, the convenience of returning to the same merchant time after time can outweigh occasional frustrations, so if you can deliver a great experience, you could get more business from more people, more often.

2. Customers are less patient online and have high expectations

Your customers are used to a pretty slick online experience when they’re shopping online day-to-day. Whether it’s the weekly grocery shop or ordering from Amazon, most people are used to a high quality, fast and convenient online service. That will apply to everything from how you lay out your products, group items or link related products together to your delivery arrangements, returns process and access to customer service.

First up, your search function needs to be really good. Customers will quickly get frustrated if they can’t find what they are looking for and leave. So you need to make sure that your product database is searchable not just by specific names or product types but by commonly used terms or nicknames. Also bear in mind that we don’t all spell everything right, so it’s worth building in commonly misspelled alternatives so that people can find what they want, even if they make a mistake typing it.

Secondly, while customers might put up with one or two items being out of stock, they will quickly lose patience if several items on the list aren’t available, particularly if there is no indication of when it might be back in stock again. Maintaining your stock availability is arguably even more critical for online retail – for a start, you don’t have a helpful, friendly member of staff on hand to explain the situation and suggest an alternative, and also, it’s just too easy for people to look elsewhere online.

3. Customers read reviews. A lot.

Walking around your branch or depot, most customers won’t bother to check reviews or compare prices. But online, it’s easy to do and people are already in the habit of doing so. That means you need to manage reviews carefully as bad ones can be damaging.

Many merchants are choosing to partner with a leading review site such as TrustPilot, Feefo or of course, Google My Business (among many others!) They all offer various partnership deals and incentives so shop around to see which is the best fit for your business.

Encouraging customers to leave reviews is a good idea, as is sharing that glowing feedback far and wide on social media channels, but it’s also really important to manage and interact with the negative reviews, take it on the chin, and respond personally and professionally to less positive reviews. It can reassure new customers that although of course mistakes can happen, your customer service is great and you will always make up for anything that goes wrong.

4. Check your facts. Because your customers will.

Customers buying online need a lot of product information. In person, it’s easy to check sizes and finishes, but online it can be hard to tell. You therefore need to make sure all the information a customer could possibly want is easily accessible – dimensions, weights, finishes, environmental impact, certification, required fixings and so on all need to be accurately and comprehensively described.

Customers may also need to follow up and ask questions about a particular product, so you may need to consider how to meet that need, whether with a live chat function or a messaging service. Your eCommerce platform provider should be able to advise the best solution for you but it’s important to be aware of the processes.

There is an increasing focus on the standardisation of product information (check out ETIM for example, and the progress of Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs)) and for the most part, suppliers will provide it - but it’s just one more example of a consideration you need to be on top of.

5. Customers are easier to communicate with. And there’s a huge opportunity there.

One of the huge opportunities of online trading is that it is easier to keep in touch with customers, analyse how they behave and use that information to improve their experience. You have a ready made, low cost way to communicate with your customers and encourage them to come back to you the next time they need materials, products or expert advice.

This is a great way to build that loyalty you want to encourage – whether you run a rewards scheme, offer added value guides or information sources, let them know about discounts or sales, offer delivery flexibility, ask for reviews or just run competitions to generate some additional awareness, it’s so much easier to reach them when you’ve got their email address. Obviously you’ll need to be careful not to overdo it though. Be aware of how overloaded most people’s inboxes are these days and keep your messaging to a respectful minimum.

Ecommerce is a whole-business project

Running a successful ecommerce platform requires significant focus across the whole business. It’s not just a replication of your instore offering and it’s not a quick and easy fix – but it is an incredibly important investment in the future of your business.

It needs to be managed well and have the correct digital infrastructure to cope with the speed, volume and frequency of purchase that can result, and to manage up-to-the-minute customer communication. Once the balance between all these elements is right, you will earn your customers’ loyalty – but be aware, they’ll make you work hard to keep it.

The bottom line is, make it easy

Whether that’s finding products, comparing prices, saving items for repeat ordering, organising delivery or checking specific information, the easier you make the whole process for your customers, the better their experience will be and the more likely they will be to come back. Remember though, however easy it is, if you are regularly out of stock of popular items or your pricing is out of line with the market, customers will learn fast to look elsewhere.

While there are differences in the way that people shop online compared with in-branch, when it comes down to it, what people want is usually based around the same things – convenience, value and good service. If you can make your customers feel good about buying from you, they are far more likely to return. Building relationships through trust and good service is key – so you need the products, the price, the knowledge, the service and that little bit extra to win them over time after time.

NB: If you are considering eCommerce for your merchant business, we recommend choosing an eCommerce platform provider with industry-specific expertise who will be able to guide you through the process in much more detail, such as eCommonSense. We don’t provide eCommerce solutions, but our ERP software is compatible with some of the leading providers.