LOOKING to learn from the experiences of an e-commerce business owner? What sort of problems come with running your own online retail business, and how do you overcome them?
Anthony Stodart is managing director of ArdMoor, the e-commerce site he founded in July 2010. Based in North Berwick, the site stocks clothing and equipment for shooting, fishing, sailing, stalking, farming, gamekeeping and country life in general, for men, women and children.
While Anthony believes that starting off as an online business, rather than having to convert an existing high street business to a virtual one, allowed ArdMoor to avoid some of the more common e-commerce pitfalls, running an internet retail operation is not without its challenges – one of which is equal parts help and hindrance.
Ranking in Google
“Google is the perpetual issue that must be overcome, and understanding how we can stay high in their rankings. A general rule of thumb is not to take any shortcuts. If you play by the rules, Google tends to reward you with good rankings. You’re always going to be right if you do the right thing.
“This means things like no copying and pasting of content and product descriptions from other sites – which we have actually had done to us; another business scraped our entire site and put our content up as their own.”
This is a practice for which Google will penalise websites - the site which had the content first will be highest in the rankings, whereas those using any duplicate content will be pushed down. There is a simple, if time-consuming, way to avoid this, says Anthony: “We take a lot of time to rewrite the descriptions provided by the manufacturers of our merchandise and to add value to them and put our own slant on descriptions. This original content is not only adding value for our customers, it’s what keeps us consistently high in the rankings.”
Keeping on their good side is not the only challenge with the world’s most popular search engine: “Google’s algorithm tweaks can be hard to keep up with. You don’t get warning of them and you need to be able to figure out whatever new thing it is that they are using to determine rankings quickly, so you don’t slide down them.
“For example, Google has recently started to reward sites which have added-value content and information – social media add-ons, news sections, guides, blogs etc. We don’t currently have enough of these, so at the moment we’re actively working on adding them. It’s not enough just to carry more products than other people now, that’s nowhere near as significant as it used to be. To stay up the rankings and thus get more customers, it’s all about adding extra value to your site, so you’re more than a place to shop. Dynamic content is what puts you at the top of a search.”
ArdMoor has added a blog to its site – covering news about the company and issues relevant to those living and working in the country, tips for the pursuits it caters for, even game recipes – as well as a series of guides to all aspects of country life, but Anthony is insistent that even this is not enough to keep you at the top of those all-important rankings, saying: “Again, there are no shortcuts here. This content also needs to be regularly updated and refreshed, and Google tracks how often you are doing this, otherwise you will drop down the rankings again. It’s not enough just to bung a load of extra content up all in one go and leave it there forever. Little and often is the key.”
When it comes to e-commerce setbacks, ArdMoor has evaded the common problem of low conversion rates, but Anthony did find that the site was experiencing a high bounce rate – when potential customers visit just one page on the site and then leave. He explains: “This could mean the page is not relevant or is not what they thought it would be. To fix this, you need to firstly make sure your ads are pointed at the right pages - that clicking on an ad will actually take the customer to that product on your site. However, we also noticed that we had a particularly high bounce rate from mobiles. After some investigation, we discovered that people were using their mobiles to scan the barcodes of items we sell in shops to see if there was a cheaper alternative but waiting until they got home to make the purchase online rather than doing so from their phone.”
Another common problem for retailers is cart abandonment - when the customer leaves the site in the middle of the checkout process before completing their purchase. To counter this problem, and many others, Anthony cites understanding the mindset of his customers as key.
“You can’t make assumptions about what the customer will already know; you must make everything very clear. For example, one way we avoid cart abandonment is to put our delivery charges very clearly at the top of every page, as well as on every item. That way there are no nasty surprises for the customer.
“We are also very clear in the image and the description of the product – which is what sells a product online. Good size guides also cut down on returns and exchanges. We picked up on this and improved it and our returns rate has gone down since.”
However, Anthony does have one caveat when it comes to the customer being king. He warns: “Think carefully before you offer free delivery – it may be a way to get customers buying, but it is not free for you, the business owner. Besides the actual postage costs, there’s the packaging, the time it takes to organise and pack a delivery, and the wages of the person doing it. I know of a business that offered free postage for any item to anywhere in the world – they did brilliantly at first of course, but they couldn’t sustain that cost and that might have been one of the reasons they are no longer in business. We cannot afford to offer free delivery, and we are upfront about this. As long as you are honest and allow the customer to factor the postage costs into their spending, then that is fair.”
Fairness and trust are key components in e-commerce, and Anthony is adamant about their importance: “Trust is what it’s all about. The absolute secret to online success is customer service. Nothing will beat that. There are always going to be problems, you can never eliminate them entirely, so it’s how you deal with them that makes you stand out. We call people, we email them – we contact them. This makes people trust you – we are accessible, we are visible, we are real people at the end of the phone. Our phone number is clearly displayed on every page - there’s no hiding behind the screen.
“And our service is prompt and polite. Talking to customers also gives us invaluable feedback. We gain so much information on how they use the site. Loyalty equals repeated custom and repeat purchasers are vital to the business – it’s much harder to get a new customer than to keep an exisiting one.
“For success and longevity in e-commerce, do it properly. No shortcuts. It’s not cheap, but it won’t work in the long term if you cut corners.”
• This feature was produced in partnership with Scottish Enterprise