By ATG (www.atg.com)

There has never been a better time for SMEs to embrace the opportunities e-commerce offers to boost sales explains Frank Lord, VP EMEA, ATG.

A recent report by technology analyst firm Forrester revealed 190 million Europeans will be shopping online by 2014. Based on a survey of nearly 26,000 European consumers, the report also revealed that 48 percent of UK consumers currently make a monthly online purchase.
Given such compelling statistics it’s surprising not more small businesses are embracing the opportunities e-commerce offers to boost sales. A recent study by PayPoint found although 27 per cent of small and medium organisations appreciate the benefits of a well designed e-commerce site they are yet to make the move online. Based on conversations with our SME customer base, we’ve found costs, skills and IT capacity to be three key reasons organisations are reluctant to either make the move online or improve their existing offering.

•Keeping a lid on costs: For many SMEs, investment in e-commerce is often associated with huge sums of money. For this reason alone, many e-commerce plans fail to see the light of day. Despite these concerns, it is important to note that e-commerce investment need not be that significant in order for SMEs to reap the benefits of having an online presence.

•Skills and knowledge: For many small or mid-sized organisations, a lack of individuals with experience or skills running an e-commerce site means many are unsure how best to make the move online. For those that do make the move online, a lack of e-commerce skills means sites are often basic and fail to deliver the rich experience consumers expect. Yet, while expertise is important, it is not essential that SMEs have the necessary skills in-house in order to run a successful e-commerce site.

•IT capacity: Another factor impacting the adoption of e-commerce concerns IT capacity. In many cases, small enterprises do not have the capacity to host complex sites with their own infrastructure. This, however, need not be a reason inhibiting e-commerce adoption since outsourcing options are available to businesses.

Making the move online

While there may be many issues that need to be addressed, failing to embrace the online world is no longer an option. Having said that, it does not mean to say organisations should jump-in head first. Developing the right e-commerce approach and strategy requires a lot of careful thought and consideration, especially given the importance of getting it right first time. Smaller organisations don’t have the resources to make mistakes compared to larger outfits and will easily lose market share without an effective e-commerce strategy in place. With this in mind we have identified three key issues SMEs should have in mind when looking to launch online or expand an existing offering.

Understand consumer needs

Key to the success of any SME is customer insight. Without knowing what customers want and how their needs change over time it is difficult to grow revenues. The same is true online, which is why tools that track why customers are coming to the site and how they interact online are increasingly important. For example, if a consumer lands on a clothing retailer’s website after searching online for black shoes and then on the site is presented with a home page detailing a number of red jumpers for sale, it’s likely they’ll go elsewhere. If, however, they are presented with the latest range of black shoes, then they’re more likely to stay, browse and hopefully purchase.
Using such customer insight to improve sites plays a key role in helping to reduce the likelihood of shopping cart abandonment. Shopping cart abandonment occurs when an online shopper chooses a product, places it in their virtual shopping cart but then at the last minute decides to not buy. By tracking consumer behaviour and understanding why a shopper visited a site in the first place, a company can ensure searches are fast, seamless and accurate and reduce shopping cart abandonment rates.

Deliver the personal touch

Delivering the personal touch has long been something small businesses have excelled at, giving them an edge over competitors many times their size. Offering this same level of service online is often thought to be challenging, especially since consumers today are more demanding than ever, but thanks to developments in technology this need not be the case. Tools such as automated recommendations, for instance, play a key role in delivering a personalised shopping experience. This technology automatically recommends products or services to a consumer based on their browsing behaviour during a session and/or previous purchases. It also ensures relevant content is offered to shoppers while giving the company control by ensuring, for example, only those products in stock are recommended. The ultimate benefit of automating and personalising online merchandising is that it gives SMEs a powerful means to convert browsers into buyers and increase the value of orders placed.

It’s good to talk

Although UK consumers are increasingly comfortable buying online, when it comes to some purchases a little human interaction can play a crucial role in helping close a sale. This is particularly so when it comes to high value items or complicated goods such as electrical products. Offering customers innovative ‘click to call’ technology is one way to give consumers the chance to talk directly with organisations. The technology allows a shopper to request a call from someone at the company who can then discuss on the phone any queries they may have. Offering customers the option to talk or even purchase goods over the phone after browsing online can also be particularly beneficial in helping smaller, less known companies establish trust with customers. In many cases individuals will be unwilling to handover card details online to a company they’ve not done business with online before, but will be happy paying over the phone. In a recent survey of over 1,000 UK consumers, we found 86 per cent said having access to live online help services would be useful when making online purchases.

Making the most of online

Consumer demand for commerce anywhere means no SME can afford to avoid the online world. Those that do risk losing market share and alienating customers increasingly keen to spend online. Despite this, it’s important not to launch or improve an existing site without first doing some homework on what consumers want, exploring the ways to best deliver the personal touch and investigating how innovative technologies can be deployed to attract new customers and keep existing ones. Those that do, however, will be well placed to capitalise on the online opportunities in the months ahead.