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David vs Goliath: How online independents can compete with retail giants

Every day, small and mid-sized independent e-retailers get up and get ready to do battle. SMEs know the opportunity is there to survive, even thrive, but it entails being able to compete with retail giants.
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Ever-improving technology means the opportunity has never been better for e-commerce. Sales have continued to rise, despite fears immediately post-Brexit that we would see a decline. A recent report stated sales are 15 per cent higher in 2016 than at the same point last year, and we are 37.3 per cent ahead of the start of year forecast – the perfect time for SMEs to compete with retail giants.

Why? Because small businesses have an advantage that big retailers never will – a sense of uniqueness when it comes to products, a role as part of a local community and an opportunity to offer a level of customer service that impersonal companies like Amazon can never match.

On the other hand, the advantages of being a retail giant cannot be denied: the strength of infrastructure in technology and fulfilment systems, superior ordering power, and the ability to spend a bit of money to test a potential solution without risk of sinking the business. This allows big firms to offer convenience in product choice, web experience, checkout and delivery.

The reality for SMEs is that increasingly web-savvy consumers are decreasingly loyal, so you must find ways to compete with retail giants on convenience, while maintaining the unique selling points that inspire customer excitement. Here are some ideas:

Become a specialist

Develop a niche business that provides a wide variety of choice in price and quality of one item or category of items. If Amazon is selling four varieties of shower curtain, your online store is selling 400. A small online retailer can never been all things to all people – but can sell shower curtains to everyone. That is convenience of a different sort. Online retailers can choose to offer high-end goods only, cultivating a select clientele and a carefully curated boutique-style product range, or choose to cover the entire range of just one product, from super-cheap to top of the line. Either way, specialisation is a way to take advantage of the agility of being small, and offer convenience of choice.

Customer service, customer service, customer service

Here is an area where you will win if you’re going to compete with retail giants. It would be impossible for big companies to provide for each customer a friendly human being at the other end of a phone line who knows absolutely everything about the product they are trying to buy – but you can.

Are you prioritising customer service over all else? Do your customers feel looked after in every interaction they have with your business? Do they feel valued? When they have a problem, are you solving it painlessly for them? If you have not already adopted an “American” model of customer service, where the customer is (nearly) always right, you are ceding territory to the retail giants at every interaction.

Content marketing

Are you using your natural expertise in your product niche to your best advantage? Here are four ways to use content marketing to give your customers the convenience of easy access to information.

1) Blogs – You can release short pieces about your industry or product range, citing news sources or writing from your own experience.

2) Videos – Make a video that shows customers how to use your product, or what makes it special.

3) Photos – Spend some money on beautiful pictures that show off your products to best advantage – preferably while they’re being worn, used, or consumed.

4) Infographics – Give information to your customers in an easily digestible graphic format

Improve your delivery options

Delivery is all about convenience, and it’s an area where SMEs must try to beat the retail giants. Customers are invested in having multiple delivery options offered to them. Some 56% of online shoppers rated delivery choice as the most important factor when deciding on a purchase, and 74 per cent of retailers see an increase in sales after offering more delivery options.

Overall, it is possible for SMEs to compete with retail giants on convenience. It requires ingenuity, time and a willingness to think differently about the problem – but savvy online retailers will rise to the challenge.

Sam Jarvis is the founder of innovative Click & Collect service HubBox

Image: Shutterstock

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As the champion of UK enterprise for 20 years, Real Business is the most-read SME website dedicated to high-growth businesses and entrepreneurs. Through daily news, unique insight and invaluable guides we are an essential resource for thriving businesses.

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