The key challenge facing small e-tailers

By: Fiona Humberstone

Date: 28 September 2011

Recently, I was "conference-tastic". A morning at Performance in Fashion, where I spoke on powerful branding for small businesses followed by the fantastic Sheerluxe ecommerce conference left my head spinning and my notebook was chok-a-block by the end of the week. I’m positively buzzing with ideas and can’t wait to implement some of our plans on some of our ecommerce clients.

Sheerluxe put on a phenomenal line-up, including a keynote speech from retail analyst, Neil Saunders of Verdict Retail. Neil is an expert in retail trends and his speech made for both sobering and inspiring listening. Neil’s message was businesses need to find new ways to excite and engage the consumer and add value to their proposition. We’ve consumed a lot over the last ten years, we’re jaded and we want a more satisfying experience.

Businesses must find ways to empathise with how the customer is feeling and produce propositions that provide satisfaction and engage with the customer on an emotional level. It really isn’t just about sticking things on a shelf any more. It’s about adding value, creating an experience and really engaging the consumer.

What I find frustrating and thrilling in equal measure is that small businesses can do this – quickly, passionately and effectively. Small businesses can move much faster than retail giants. They can respond to consumer feeling and create a really powerful and compelling proposition. It’s exciting.

But what is frustrating is that small e-tailers often don’t invest in themselves enough to make that difference. It has never been easier or cheaper to set up an online shop. Anyone can do it. But the world is overrun with ecommerce sites that lack focus, inspiration and powerful communication.

It wasn’t so long that Mary Portas was vilified for letting rip at the UK handmade community. A bunch of very passionate craftspeople asked Mary to sympathise with their struggle to get consumers to take their crafts seriously and she gave them some very sensible advice: start creating experiences, create some excitement, create stories.

It’s great advice. Clunkily designed shops, poor photography and a difficult shopping experience don’t make for a great start to a business. Consumers have never had so much choice. They have never behaved so impatiently. They haven’t felt this pinched for a long time. If you want to gain a share of their hard-earned cash your challenge is to excite and engage them.

Fiona Humberstone, managing director of Flourish design & marketing