Platforms, Product Mix and More: Answering Common Online Store Questions
In 2022, U.S. retail e-commerce sales will cross the $1 trillion mark for the first time ever. That’s according to a forecast from Insider Intelligence, whose original pre-pandemic projections didn’t have this happening until 2024. If you’ve been watching the way the pandemic has transformed consumer buying habits, none of this should come as a surprise. But those stats confirm what we already know: E-commerce is booming, y’all.
The timing couldn’t be better for print and promo. Coinciding with the explosion of online shopping has been a noticeable uptick in the number of companies getting into the branded merchandise game. We’re at the point where consumers expect every brand to have an online store where they can shop for—uh, sorry, “cop”—the latest merch. We’ve seen countless articles in major publications documenting this phenomenon. Many in the industry are seeing it, too.
“Every brand can create brand love with merch, and because we’re in an era where brands now ‘get it’ about merch, it’s a much easier sell as long as we target the right audience,” says Bobby Lehew, chief content officer for commonsku, a Toronto-based provider of promotional products business and sales software. “The reason [an online] shop is so perfect for this revolution in merch (and evolution for those of us in the biz), is that it’s the perfect one-to-one method for a one-to-one medium. No matter how ‘boring’ the business (finance, insurance, etc.), brands are keen to build brand love like never before. In the hands of the right brand merch expert, it’s nothing but opportunity.”
Want in on that opportunity? Then you’d better be able to provide your clients with an online store. And if you’ve never done it before (or you want to get more out of the stores you’re already operating), you’ve come to the right place. Join us as we answer some common questions about online stores, with help from Lehew and one other e-commerce expert.
Please tell me more about this branded merch explosion.
Hey, that’s not a question! But we’ll oblige. While branded merchandise was once almost exclusively the domain of movies, musical artists and the biggest of the big national brands, it’s become normalized, if not expected, as consumers continue making it “cool” to own branded gear. A few years ago, it would be unheard of for a budget grocery store chain to release a branded apparel collection, but that’s what Aldi did in 2021—and again in 2022 after the first release proved to be a massive success.
There are new examples like this almost every day. And brands in just about every industry are taking notice. More and more of them are realizing the potential branded merchandise has to offer, with direct-to-consumer e-commerce stores the easiest and most obvious way to get merch into the hands of fans. This is having a real, positive impact for distributors willing to take the e-commerce plunge.
“We’ve grossly underestimated our potential as an industry,” says Lehew. “I say this because of a few things happening simultaneously. One is the adoption of branded merch as a democratic and rather revolutionary way to spark brand obsession. We’re living in an era of unrivaled individual expression, which, when connected with the right brand experience and audience passion, creates a hyper-vigilant, grassroots marketing engine that you can’t buy. The other is the lines have blurred in the distinctions in our business: print, promo, apparel, B2B, B2C—doesn’t matter. It’s all about brand expression, and there are no more limits on what a distributor can do.”
Oh, that sounds great! One problem: I don’t know how to set up an online store. How do I get started?
This is a common question, and the good news is you don’t need an MIT degree, a background in coding or an affiliation with a major distributor company to launch an online store. Heck, you probably just need Google. There is a growing number of providers specializing in low-cost, turn-key e-commerce solutions for print and promo. These include OrderMyGear, WebJaguar, Trellis, Commercio (a Facilisgroup product available to the entire industry), commonsku and more. Most of these will let you get started quickly without any prior e-commerce experience.
“Shops are now easier than ever before,” says Lehew. “There’s a mental barrier most people have about tech. They feel it’s hard, difficult to implement, cumbersome and expensive. In reality, it’s now cheap (compared to the revenue potential), easy (compared to years past) and no longer requires a technologist. Those were the old days. Our industry has so much to improve upon when it comes to tech adoption, but mental hurdles are our biggest hurdle. A shop is so versatile now you can pop one up in minutes.”
Kim Planet, chief solutions architect for Kalio Commerce, another e-commerce platform, based in San Jose, California, that offers tailored solutions for print and promo companies, says these entry-level options are more than sufficient for distributors not looking to do anything too complex. And once distributors are ready to level up, there are more robust options that still require little technical expertise.
“For companies with significant online market share or unique business requirements, there are more upmarket solutions available to fit their needs,” says Planet. “These solutions can provide the flexibility, scalability and capabilities necessary to handle the thousands of products, millions of dollars in revenue and custom business requirements often found in more sophisticated e-commerce retailers. Often, these solutions can be paired with a third-party systems integrator, or in the case of Kalio, a dedicated professional services team, that can serve as your technical implementation partner.”
That last part sounds complicated. How much technical know-how do I actually need to launch an online store?
It depends on how you’re going about it. Setting up your own proprietary e-commerce solution for customers will, obviously, take a ton of expertise and probably a dedicated tech team. But even if you’re working with an out-of-the-box e-commerce solutions provider, some technical knowledge helps, though it’s not required.
“The ability to set up and configure your website’s DNS, importing product data (and determining the required attributes necessary for an online transaction), exporting and digesting e-commerce orders back into your ERP system, and the general configuration/maintenance of your e-commerce solution all require some basic levels of technical competence,” says Planet. “However, with entry-level solutions, general programming skills are typically not needed. That will change, though, as your business (and e-commerce requirements) grow over time.”
“Unless you have the resources of Amazon or some other large e-commerce retailer, it’s probably best to curate your product mix and be known for ‘something’ as opposed to offering ‘everything.’”
I keep hearing about Shopify stores. It seems like pretty much everybody is using them these days, so would they also make sense for my promo clients?
Shopify is everywhere for a reason. Its e-commerce platform offers ease of use at a reasonable price, and it tends to be more seller-friendly than, say, Amazon. It also has all the bells and whistles modern customers and buyers want in their e-commerce experience.
You can definitely set up your client’s online store on Shopify or any of the other general platforms like it, but keep in mind that these platforms are geared more toward B2C e-commerce than B2B, and none are geared specifically toward print and promo.
While some promo distributors are developing ways to integrate more seamlessly with Shopify, Planet recommends going with whatever platform offers the capabilities and expertise you need. Often, that will end up being the industry-specific solution.
“The promotional products industry is unique and often has sophisticated product customization requirements often not replicated in general solution platforms,” says Planet. “A third-party vendor that understands your industry and is designed with the specific needs of that vertical in mind is typically best suited to help you realize your goals.”
What if I want to go it alone instead of working with an e-commerce provider. Is that possible?
It’s certainly possible. Planet says many industry companies have gone this route, often because they started in e-commerce before there were as many (or any) third-party providers. Others simply prefer the full control an internal solution offers. Plenty of the larger distributor companies have developed their own proprietary e-commerce solutions for their owners or affiliates. This route can be a great option if you have the resources, but that, of course, is the challenge.
“Building an internal e-commerce solution is no small undertaking,” says Planet. “It requires a significant investment in both IT resources and equipment. While there’s some benefit to the ability to fully control your online shopping experience, often the costs of rebuilding basic e-commerce capabilities (without the benefit of economies of scale) far outweigh the advantages. Plus, finding and retaining top-level IT talent to build an internal solution is difficult for most any company with the possible exception of Fortune 500 enterprises.”
How do I pick the best product mix for the store? Is it just “whatever the customer wants,” or is there a better way?
The problem with “whatever the customer wants” is that the customer is probably going to want everything. The more products they offer, the more revenue they’ll bring in, right? Not necessarily. Too many options can actually overwhelm online shoppers, causing them to buy fewer items or not make a purchase at all. Plus, it can complicate things for you, the distributor. That’s why Planet advises starting small.
“Unless you have the resources of Amazon or some other large e-commerce retailer, it’s probably best to curate your product mix and be known for ‘something’ as opposed to offering ‘everything,’” she says. “Managing a large number of SKUs can be costly both from a personnel and a logistics perspective.”
“The secret to controlling the client’s wild inclination to offer everything is to suggest incremental growth,” adds Lehew. “Start with the basics, plus a few radical pieces meant to stir up some attention, and grow into your shop. Don’t just do everything your client commands. Remember, you are the expert, your opinion matters and you should guide your client, not take dictation. For inspo: Watch what retailers do with their core product groups and how they mix in new styles.”
I got a store set up for my client and it looks great! I’m done now, right?
No! Setting up the store is just part one, at least if you want that store to keep generating revenue for you and your client.
“The most important thing to remember is that an e-commerce website is never ‘build it and forget it,’” says Planet. “The best online stores with the highest growth are continually working their websites, evolving their capabilities and adjusting to ever-changing market conditions.”
According to Lehew, an online store can yield compound revenue for seven years, but it’s not automatic. He recommends a number of options to ensure sustained success, like rotating fresh products through the shop, both at regular intervals (for example, by season) and through “product drops”—short releases of exclusive items. Above all, he says, keep working with your client to actively promote the shop.
“Market your shop, again and again,” says Lehew. “I can’t say this last phrase enough: Market your shop. If you build it, they will come, but only once. Measure adoption and market, market, market.”
Sure! We'll leave you with this bonus tip, from Planet.
"E-commerce platforms don’t work in a vacuum. They require integration with your existing product, order entry, inventory management, fulfillment, and customer database systems (to name a few) in order to deliver a seamless customer experience. Oftentimes, e-commerce implementations can get sidetracked due to problems in the integration process. Incompatibilities with data, communication protocols, or synchronization can lead to significant project delays and/or cost overruns. Some systems are simply incompatible with older ERP solutions that are often found in mature companies. In these cases, you may be forced to either change out your ERP system as well (a timely and costly endeavor) or scrap the project entirely.
"That’s why it's critical to choose a solution, and a partner, who can identify these integration points and have the flexibility to build connections that will work with your existing systems."