How independent retailers can win the online battle with High Street giants

Competing with the giants of retail on the High Street is inevitably a daunting task for any SME, and in the digital world it is no different. After all, you can look at the likes of John Lewis, Argos, Marks & Spencer and admire the strength of their infrastructure in technology and fulfilment systems, their superior ordering power which enables them to keep prices low, their recognisable brands which people have trusted for decades, and their ability to invest a bit of money to test new solutions without sinking the company if it doesn’t work out. Just how are you supposed to compete with that?

Well, it is possible to compete, and it’s being done successfully by hundreds of SMEs every day.

This is borne out by the numbers. The outlook for retailers is optimistic as sales continue to rise, despite fears immediately post-Brexit that we would see a decline. A recent report stated that online sales are 15% higher in 2016 than last year and are 37.3% ahead of the start of year forecast.

So what strategies and tactics will maximise your chances of success, as a small independent up against the big retailers? Here are some proven approaches to try:

Go niche

Let’s face facts, as a small retailer you are never likely to compete with the giants on sheer volume of products. The smart approach is to specialise, and there are many options for how to do this. You can choose to offer high-end goods only, cultivating a select clientele and a carefully curated boutique-style product range. Or you can choose to cover the entire range of just one product, from super-cheap to top of the line. If Marks & Spencer has four varieties of teapots, you have 400. As an SME, you can never expect to be all things to all people – but with the right digital strategy you can sell teapots to all of them.

Once you have specialised, you then need to become the expert. If it really is teapots, you should know everything there is to know about the product, from spout shape to ceramic composition. There should be no one at the retail giants who knows more about your products than you do – they might have the household name brand, but you can become the go-to experts for all things teapot.

Establish your niche

Ok, so you have built your expertise in your niche, so how do you now use that knowledge to your advantage? The simple answer is content marketing.

You have the products, and your expertise in your niche is going to be what brings people into your particular website to buy them. People browse and research products before they take the leap to buy, so by creating engaging, helpful content that will add value to your target customers, you can pull these browser to your online shop. Here are some ideas:

1. Videos: Make educational videos that show your customers how your products work, demonstrates features and reassures them over any potential concerns they may have.

2. Photos: Sub-standard images cost sales, so get some professionally shot photographs taken that really show off your products in the best possible light. Include shots of the products being used, worn or consumed, as well as close-up shots on the little details customers like to see.

3. Blogs: Write about your products from your expert position. What can you tell your customers about teapots that they don’t already know? Sit down and make a list of every possible question your potential customer might have, and then take the time to write helpful answers to every one.

Go head-to-head when you have to

Sometimes you simply cannot avoid taking the giants on head-to-head. One area where that is true is delivery – the internet gives you the potential to reach millions of customers worldwide, but you still need to make sure your products reach them.

Customers have come to expect multiple convenient delivery options. They don’t discriminate between what a retail giant offers and what a one-man operation offers – it is all about who can get the product to them in the most convenient way. 56% of online shoppers rated delivery choice as the most important factor when deciding to purchase, and 74% of retailers see an increase in sales after offering more delivery options.

Click & collect is an increasingly popular option with customers. It combines the convenience of offline shopping with the ease of online shopping. It means customers never need wait in for a delivery, because they can pick up their goods at their convenience, so it is perhaps no surprise that 76% of online shoppers will use click & collect in 2017.

Click & collect used to be virtually beyond the reach of the average small/medium sized online retailer. In recent years it has been one area that gives High Street giants with established networks of bricks and mortar shops a strong competitive advantage. However, a few companies have now started to offer a click & collect networks to independent retailers, by effectively partnering online retailers with a network of trusted local shops who act as collect points.

One of these services is HubBox, who offer online retail clients a nationwide click & collect network of convenience stores, dry cleaners, pharmacists that they can tap into without needing to change their own courier(s) or fulfilment systems. Such tech solutions enable even small online retailers to integrate a click & collect offering to their checkout process that is seamless for the customer and painless for the retailer.
By embracing technology solutions and thinking innovatively, there is plenty of room in the online retail landscape for smaller independents to compete with the Marks & Spencers of the world. And savvy retailers will rise to the challenge.

Sam Jarvis is the founder of click & collect service, HubBox.