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Lessons from the High Street – What online stores can learn

By Tim Fuell - January 24, 2013

With 2013 opening with news reports of high street failures, struggling retail chains and a rise in online shopping, many are looking to e-commerce as the golden goose, but not all the doom and gloom around the high street is just because they were operating from a physical store.

Tradtional High Street sign

© Copyright Neil Owen and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Getting your store online is a relatively pain-free exercise but making it work for you, requires more than just a smooth back-end system and nice looking site, it also requires the correct approach, planning and understanding of your market. Here’s a handful of lessons that many of the current and recent high street failures appeared unable to properly address:

Keep up to date with trends

You don’t need to be a trailblazer – although it helps – but make sure you at least know what else is going on in the world. Too often ‘We’ve always done it this way’ has a ring of failure about it. Make sure you set-aside time to at least monitor what your competitors are up to. Customers are loyal to a point, but if they see an advantage to use another retailer even the strongest loyalty is tested. Recent news has seen HMV and Waterstones both struggling on the high street with stores having to be closed due to poor sales figures. Yet both were once trailblazers themselves in their own sectors, unfortunately they took their eye off the ball. Both were slow to move into the online arena and their multi-channel offerings have often looked more like stand-alone offerings rather than fully integrated. In-store too they too often seemed to want to ignore the advances of technology, not promoting new gadgets or e-functionality that perhaps offered a threat to their traditional methods, but for competitors have actually been used as a way of smoothing cross-platform integration.

Get your Customer Service Right

Amazon’s success in the online market has been based on a ‘customer first’ attitude. From personal experience, any items lost or undelivered have been rapidly replaced as soon as the retailer has been notified, even replacements of expensive technology goods notified as dead on arrival have been despatched before the broken item has even been re-packed for return. Now that’s good customer service. No queries, no frustrations, no bad feeling.  No queues in line at ‘the separate checkout’ to be met with stern questions, an interested face and a computer says no attitude.

Branding makes a statement

Another thing Amazon has done well is making the brown cardboard wrapper a bit of a status symbol. There’s no shame in arriving at your work desk to find an Amazon branded semi-cardboard box structure is waiting for you. The packaging is strong, looks smart yet is as basic as it comes. That’s good branding. Uncomplicated and easily identifiable.  The brand stands for something and people immediately identify it and what’s more are possibly even proud to show off they are using it. Logos need to be simple and as they say a picture paints a thousand words.

Partnerships offer quick wins

It’s no fluke that years ago when the traditional departmental stores began to see their status waning against specialist shops, they looked to partnering with names established elsewhere and introducing them into their stores as ‘departments’ in the form of concessions. It is a practice that still works today. It can help share the expense of overheads, it brings in different audiences who may not normally be attracted to browse, it also potentially brings in added kudos if the concession has a strong brand reputation themselves. It is a way of offering new services to your customers that may be of use and interest to them without the expense of investing in and testing a new market. In recent years a whole host of coffee chains have sprung up in supermarkets, in book-stores and in public spaces. WHSmith have embraced the Post Office within many of their stores and countless clothing retailers can be seen stocking and promoting sections in store of items from brands that previously may have been seen as rivals. These are the successes of the High Street and that partnership model is also being applied by many online retailers too as it works and gives an advantage over rivals, especially if the partnerships are exclusive.

No doubt 2013 will see more and more headlines of high street failures but remember every week online stores fail too. With e-commerce solutions such as those offered by 123-reg, getting an online store up and running smoothly is actually very easy but a successful store goes beyond an organised back-end system and nice looking set of pages. Concentrating on just sending out goods and re-stocking is a path to failure whether you operate from a corner shop, a high street, shopping mall, retail park or online store. Retailing is about understanding a customer’s needs and wants and providing a service that best addresses those. In a virtual environment costs can be saved, through efficiency and smaller overheads, but the strategy remains the same and lessons can be learned from the successful and unsuccessful high-street retailers that any budding online retailer should build into their strategy.