How to take your brick and mortar operation online

Old adage that ‘people buy people’ doesn’t change just because the mode of product delivery is different

Dr. Lynda Falkenstein

Question: Dear Niche Doctor: I’m hoping you can help me with an issue I can no longer avoid. Simply put, I’m a brick and mortar retailer faced with what now seems like an inevitable transition to online sales. The brick and mortar part of my business has been in the family for generations and the thought of giving up face-to-face contact with customers seems foreign to me. The fact is, however, the choice isn’t mine anymore. Brick and mortar just isn’t working any longer, at least not for me. Any suggestions you can offer to make this transition easier – and more profitable will be greatly appreciated.

Answer: As the expression goes, “Welcome to the crowd!” Everyday, scores of other retailers who thought they could hold out and ignore the world of online sales are realizing they will soon be eaten up with dwindling or zero profits if they don’t get with the program – and quickly. That program can be offering online sales exclusively a’la eBay or as an adjunct to your existing brick and mortar a’la Nordstrom. The good news is that offering customers an online option can often drive people to your brick and mortar location, if you choose to keep a physical presence. The following tips will help you make that transition successfully and profitably:

Top of list is overall “attitude adjustment” time. Instead of thinking of the internet as something to run from or just tolerate, it’s time to embrace and exploit the amazing opportunities it affords.

Whether your transition is to partial or total online sales, your existing customers will be your most important starting point. You will want to care for them like the precious jewels they are. Consider featuring selected brick and mortar customers in regular newsletters or other communiqué. This will give the potential online customer confidence you are a real business serving people just like them. In other words, your existing base will be critical in lending credibility as your niche enters the world of cyber transactions.

Collect email addresses of everyone your existing brick and mortar business has ever touched. Plan to use them with regular updates and offers.

Your brick and mortar and online presences should be symbiotic. each nourishing the other. Consider offering your brick and mortar customers special incentives to visit your website and/or pass along information to their friends.

Never forget, all customers are not alike. Be sure to carefully segment your database and email lists with fields describing their key characteristics so that your marketing efforts can go to the “right” people. Everyone does not need all your information all the time. Careful targeting will get more people going to your website and ultimately pressing the “buy” button than overkilling with irrelevant mailings which wind up blocked as spam.

Customer service was always important but it is even more so now that you have entered the world of cyber sales. Nothing turns a potential customer off faster than trying to connect with a real person to no avail. I never cease to wonder – and refuse to do business with – businesses that do not have a working phone number visible on the homepage or one easily found under their contact column. Regardless of ticket size, I want to know that a warm body is at the other end of my transaction – a warm body that can answer questions and help with problem-solving. The old adage that “people buy people” does not change just because the mode of product delivery is different.

Your transition from doing business exclusively in a brick and mortar setting to online sales will involve many steps including trial and error. By applying the above tips, you hopefully will reduce the odds of error and enhance your profits in the process.

Dr. Lynda Falkenstein is a business consultant and author of Nichecraft: Using Your Specialness to Focus Your Business, Corner Your Market, and Make Customers Seek You Out. To contact her with questions or comments, email drniche@vbjusa.com.

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