My company runs hundreds of e-commerce stores for promotional products and wearables, and I’d like to share with you the big, dirty secret of online sales in this industry: A huge portion of online transactions don’t actually get completed online. How can it be an online transaction if it doesn’t get completed online? That’s simple: If it starts online, it’s most likely counted as an online transaction. But if it doesn’t finish online – if the final amount isn’t calculated and paid for right then and there – what is it, really?
We call it a hybrid transaction, and it’s part of a big, gray netherworld of e-commerce that lives somewhere between the instant gratification of buying a Blu-Ray from Amazon and the laborious process of buying and configuring a car online. It often doesn’t sort out neatly and, for a lot of distributors new to selling online, this is a big problem. Too many businesses enter the e-commerce world hoping that the vagaries of selling face-to-face will simply go away and sales will magically get done right just by moving them online.
They don’t, and they won’t. Selling promotional products and wearables online is just as complex and maddening as selling them in the real world, but with an added twist: Your customers have been conditioned by the Amazons of the world to expect it to be fast and easy. When it isn’t, they tend to do what they do with any other website that frustrates them – they walk away. This phenomenon, known in web jargon as “abandonment“, is inevitably the primary problem for anyone selling online.
Abandonment is easy for a consumer. Relatively few of your prospects hang up in your face on a daily basis, and even fewer start an anonymous sales inquiry process with you and then just disappear into the ether, never to be heard from again. In either case, you often know who they are, and at the very least you can follow up with them and ask them what went wrong.
Not so with online customers; you usually don’t know their identity, and they come and go at their leisure, sometimes starting a process one day and finishing it weeks later. Sure, there are some tools out there (some of them free; many of them quite expensive) that provide more detailed insight into visitor behavior, but with privacy rules growing ever tighter and the “creep” factor a constant risk, you have to adjust to a different reality – a reality with higher expectations for you and lower risks for your customer. In some ways, it’s the worst of both worlds.
Don’t despair – over the next few posts, I’m going to show you the best practices for dealing with the complex reality of online sales. This won’t be about getting customers to your site; I’ve covered that before in my columns on SEO. This is about what you do with them once they get there – using every means you have at your disposal to get your hooks into a customer before they give up and leave.
Some will leave, of course, and if you sell anything, you know that to be the case with any channel. You won’t always have the most competitive price, the strongest message, or the best offers. To succeed, you’re going to have to recalibrate some of your ideas about what constitutes success online, and open your mind to new kinds of sales cycles. If you’re willing to think differently about online sales, you’ll be rewarded with more sales, better loyalty and less of that cursed abandonment.
Before we dive into strategy, let’s get a few definitions out of the way. For our purposes, any sale that materially occurs online is an online sale. The technical term for what we’re doing here is “attribution”, and attribution is actually a complex topic for anyone who sells online – you might run a print ad directing users to your website to get a special offer, and then a user buys the product on the site. Is that an online sale or a sale that started offline? What if the user went to the site but then the payment was taken over the phone after some details were worked out via email?
See what I mean? Because websites are ubiquitous (and have replaced phone books for finding most businesses) it can be hard to isolate a sale as being web-only. Certain types of products and transactions lend themselves to web-only attribution; for instance, a company store sale of a single t-shirt or an inexpensive custom pen order. But for many other types of transactions, the breakdown isn’t nearly as clean.
To keep things simple, we’ll be talking about anyone who comes to your website, at any time, and winds up buying the thing they looked at. They might buy it right then or a week later. They might check out through your cart or they might finish the order through phone, chat or email. No matter – they are an online customer for our purposes.
If you believe the numbers that PPAI provides, some 20% of all sales in this industry are online. That’s a huge number – almost four billion dollars worth – and is far above the average for most U.S. businesses. It’s somewhere between the most aggressively e-commerce-focused sectors, like books (almost half of all book sales are online) and brick-and-mortar retail giants that also sell online (Norstrom, for instance, pegs its online sales at about ten percent).
Whatever it is, it’s big (even if it’s half of what PPAI estimates) and I’m sure you’d like to get a chunk of it. But selling promotional products and wearables online can be challenging. Why? Here are a few reasons:
First, product data is a mess. Industry suppliers are still behind the curve in their ability to deliver high-quality product data to distributors. That means you’re either doing a lot of “massaging” (if you have the staff) or you’re using a more generic solution that already has all the data built in (in which case you’re probably suffering on the acquisition side because of poor search performance).
Second, configuring products online is tricky. Simple products and inventoried items are often no problem, which is why low-end orders and company store orders are commonly completed online. But the same customer that happily plugs in a credit card for an $85 pen order is going to hesitate before putting in that same credit card for $1200 worth of golf shirts. They’re just not the same thing, and our experience is that once you get around the $400-500 mark for an order, a customer wants to get a real person involved. You can’t blame them – a $1200 screw-up is a completely different ball of wax from an $85 screw-up.
Challenges, of course, create opportunities, and that’s what we’ll be focusing on for the next few posts. Once you accept the hard realities of selling these products online, the strategies and tactics to keep customers in your sales cycle become much clearer. Stick around; next time we’ll dig into one of the most important tools in your arsenal, calls-to-action, also known as CTAs.
– Brent Buford
A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.