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Better E-Business

Jim Blasingame, small-business expert, emphasizes the importance of providing shoppers with an online presence.
The holiday season is important for many sectors, but none more than retail. And for small-business retailers, a successful holiday campaign is especially vital.

Other than the advent of new products and the new ways customers pay for them, there hasn't been much disruption in the holiday retail business for the past few generations. Oh, there was that catalog thing that caught on a little more than a hundred years ago, thanks to entrepreneurs like Sears and Roebuck. Mail order disrupted Main Street retailers until they realized they didn't have to choose "either/or," between the postal and the traditional, but rather could succeed with "both/and."

But then along came the mother of all disrupters: the internet. Specifically, the main shifter of the Main Street retail paradigm is e-commerce. According to the credit card industry, online sales are growing by double digits each year, compared with traditional retail annual growth rates in the low single-digit percentages.

So how do Main Street small-business retailers prevent the e-commerce disrupter from turning into their Death Star? The same way retailers have competed with catalogs for six generations: by realizing that their options are not either/or, but rather, both/and. Don't fight it — join it.

Concerned that your business might fall behind during the holiday selling season? These facts and ideas will help you establish a "both/and" strategy, incorporating online sales activity with your traditional business model.

  • Online storefront. You must have a web presence. At a minimum, every business needs a website that demonstrates who you are, what you sell, where you're located and how to contact you. Remember these two words: local search. Being unavailable for online local search is tantamount to being phoneless. Customers expect to find you online, whether or not they expect to buy from you online.
  • E-business. This term describes the online business universe, under which are the e-business components, including e-shopping, e-customer service and, as mentioned above, e-commerce. Building an online storefront is the first step in an e-business strategy.
  • E-shopping. You need to make it easy for prospects and customers to see what you offer for sale — your catalog. If you own a restaurant, post your menu. If you run a dry-cleaning business, post whether you clean leather, rugs, etc. Why should you get serious about providing an e-shopping component on your website? The research firm, Forrester, predicts that by 2014 more than half of all retail sales will be influenced by online research before customers buy. I think this estimate is conservative.
  • E-customer service. The best example of e-customer service is enabling a customer to track, or be notified, of the progress of an order. Certain software programs allow a small business to get fancy, such as tracking a package as it makes its way through order filling and delivery. Or good e-customer service could be as simple as asking customers for their email address, so you can send them a note when their order comes in.
  • E-commerce. This is where customers can lay their digital money on your virtual barrelhead. Forrester predicts that online sales will reach $248.7 billion in the next five years, accounting for 8 percent of total U.S. retail sales by 2014. Today, an e-commerce component on a small-business website is neither complicated nor prohibitively expensive.
Research also shows that an online presence is even more important during the holidays. The Wall Street Journal reported that, in 2009, e-commerce grew 11 percent, compared with the 2.5 percent growth of traditional retail, a measured by the National Retail Federation.

An earlier survey by E-Commerce Times indicated that three of four holiday shoppers plan to shop online, with a third indicating they would buy half or more of their holiday purchases online. And two-thirds said online specialty, niche or boutique retailers are the "best places" to shop for unusual or hard-to-find gifts. Clearly, customers are not only willing to buy online, but eager to do so with a small business.

If your sales revenue is not growing, it might not be the economy; it might be that prospects and former customers want more online capability than you're offering. The best way to uncover your shortcomings is to do the thing that always makes us smarter: Ask customers what they want. And then do what they say.

Jim Blasingame is one of the world's leading experts on small business and entrepreneurship. He is the creator and host of the weekday radio program "The Small Business Advocate® Show." Jim is also a speaker, a syndicated newspaper columnist, and the author of "Small Business Is Like a Bunch of Bananas" and "Three Minutes to Success."

Calling all business owners
A version of this article originally appeared on American Express OPEN Forum. Explore The World idea hub on OPEN for more small-business success tips, delivered weekly by FedEx, or to comment on this article.

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