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  • Writer's pictureJordan Thomas

Indie Retail Resolution: Sell Something - Anything - Online by the End of 2019

I recently conducted a brief experiment, opening five promotional emails from major retailers and five promotional emails from indie retailers (all brick-and-mortar). My goal was to measure how many clicks it would take me to get to a page where I could purchase something.

All five major retailers let me shop within one click. NONE of the indie retailers - not one - had a link or call-to-action that led to a shopping page.

The results, though not necessarily surprising, provide a stark illustration for the status quo that threatens indie retail. My challenge to indie retailers everywhere is to take the leap into multi-channel and start the work NOW. Your chain competitors have a years-long head start but it is not too late! In fact, it is easier than ever to start experimenting with multi-channel. So make this resolution: Sell something - anything - online by the end of 2019.

If you've been doing this for awhile, do you remember the mad rush to get a decent website up and running about 15 years ago? At about the same time, email marketing became a huge deal. Then came blogs. Then came social media. In my experience, most indie retailers have put a fresh coat of paint on their websites and email marketing but fundamentally, very little has changed. Indie retailers often do an incredible job of inspiring online but a poor job of "closing the deal". If the only place your customers can make a purchase is in your store, that alone is presenting a major barrier that your competitors no longer have!

You have undoubtedly seen the deluge of news opining the certain death of brick-and-mortar as e-commerce growth continues to outpace growth in physical stores. "Retail Apocalypse" has been a buzzword since early 2017 (1) and continues to receive a lot of press time as many of the oldest retailers in America flirt with, or declare, bankruptcy. These doomsday articles are contrasted against more optimistic articles taking the stance that brick-and-mortar is still the lion's share of business so nothing to see or fear here.

As usual, the truth is somewhere in between these extremes. And the truth is that regardless of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty, there is no doubt that online growth is outpacing brick-and-mortar at a healthy clip and we are in the midst of a dramatic shift in consumer behavior. But don't take my word for it, let's dive into the numbers and get them straight from the source: the US Census Bureau.

This graph shows e-commerce sales as a percentage of total retail sales. 2018's results won't be available until February but the trend is clear. 2017's Q4 share was 9.1% and that number is growing by 10% every year. By 2025, 20% of all retail sales will be conducted online.

That may not sound like too much. However, and this is critical, these "retail sales" include gas stations and auto dealer sales. Adjust for gas stations, and the 9.1% jumps to 10%. Adjust for auto dealers, and that figure jumps to 12.8% (2). Assuming steady growth of 10% each year, that means 27.4% of shopping will be conducted online by 2025. I could go further and adjust for grocery stores who likely see a much smaller percentage of online shopping than other verticals, but I think you see the point.

Anecdotally, that fits the narrative that I hear from friends, family, and associates. I personally did a fair amount of shopping both online and in stores. Look at your own purchases. What percentage of Christmas shopping did you do online vs. in-store? It is likely quite a bit north of 10%.

So, where do you start? Select a product, category, or experience that has made you locally famous. Figure out how to sell that online. Market it locally to your email subscribers, in-store, social media followers, and maybe some local Google ads. Experiment, fail, and experiment some more. Keep it simple, especially at first. Don't bet the farm on a major initiative until you have had a chance to prove the concept in a small, controlled environment. Once you find something that works, figure out how you can expand on that concept and always be looking for growth.

In addition to starting small, retailers need to be thinking long-term and start preparing their data for bigger opportunities down the road. You are probably not going to come out of the gate offering every single product in your store on your website. However, you should start collecting data as if that is your end goal. I dream of the day when I Google "Mod Podge near me" and don't see this:

So, what data to collect? At a minimum: UPC, Brand, Title, Description, Image (at least one), Price, Sale Price, Category. The fields that I don't see most retailers collecting currently are Brand, Description, and Image. Many times, this information is available from your suppliers.

For apparel, there's a bit more work to do. Common data points include Size, Gender, Age Group, Color, Material, Pattern.

You also need to be maintaining accurate on-hand counts so that when the time comes, you are ready to roll out the red carpet on your multi-channel endeavor. It's not easy, but it's more important than ever. The bigger you are, the more difficult this task will be. The usefulness of accurate on-hand counts extends far beyond the supply chain benefit of improved replenishment. In this new world, accurate data about what you carry and if it's in stock can be the key to multi-channel success.

As an indie retailer, you have a decision to make. You can be bitter about the Amazons of the world, changing nothing and waiting for your customers to come to you. Or, you can do what merchants have been doing since the beginning of the business and go to your customer. In-store experience is still incredibly important and certainly your home-court advantage, but you absolutely have to be charting your course to multi-channel and you need to start NOW! Sell something - anything - online by the end of 2019.

As to where I fall on the spectrum of optimism and pessimism when it comes to brick-and-mortar, I am firmly planted as a pragmatist. Yes, consumer behavior is changing. No, it is not the end of brick-and-mortar. Savvy retailers have an unprecedented opportunity to grow their business if they create a unified experience for their customers across channels. Start now, make a commitment, and grow your business.


(2) Figures pulled from the Census Bureau's Monthly Retail Trade Report. The quarterly report cites $119,021 MM in e-commerce spend with $1,304,289 MM in total retail sales. Subtracting service station Q4 sales of $117,749 MM and auto dealer Q4 sales of $257,440 MM nets adjusted retail sales of $929,100 MM. $119,021 MM / $929,100 MM = 12.8%.


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